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Steinhauer, Olen - 'An American Spy'
Hardback: 384 pages (Mar. 2012) Publisher: Corvus ISBN: 1848876025

"I've got lots of answers, Billy. I just tend not to dwell on them because I know how easily they can disappear. These days, I worry about the next step. It's hard enough keeping that straight, much less thinking ten steps, or ten years, ahead."

An American journalist, Henry Gray, disappears in Budapest. It's said that he had been working with a Chinese agent called "Rick". Rick had also helped Andrei Stanescu fly from Berlin to New York in order to shoot ex-CIA "Tourist" Milo Weaver in revenge for the death of Stanescu's daughter. So you wonder - has Gray been taken by the Americans or the Chinese? One thing is sure, there are now two of the surviving black-ops Tourists in Berlin watching Stanescu. Perhaps he, like Gray, is about to disappear. Both men knew Rick, and Rick was the Chinese agent who destroyed the "Tourists". Really destroyed them. Thirty or so agents dead. The Department itself closed down. The Tourists must want to know all about "Rick". They must want him badly.

But Xin Zhu, for that's Rick's real name, has home-grown battles to fight. He omitted to get his project to annihilate the "Department of Tourism" sanctioned. It was, after all, an act of personal reprisal on his part for the death of his son in Sudan. Now his political enemies amongst the Beijing bosses in the Ministry of Public Security have their chance to get rid of him. And when Xin Zhu hears that someone from the American Embassy in Beijing has been fishing around for information about his pretty young wife - he knows that the threats are coming from all sides.

There is no longer a "Department of Tourism" in New York and Milo Weaver, still recovering from his gunshot wound, is out of a job. Weaver needs to get a life for himself and his family. Get another job. Move on. But his ex-boss goes missing and Weaver is unwillingly sucked back into the bloody and tortuous aftermath of the Department's destruction.

Prior to the Milo Weaver books, Steinhauer - American born but based in Europe for many years - published five successful interconnected thrillers set in Cold War Eastern Europe. AN AMERICAN SPY is the third in Steinhauer's Milo Weaver series; Milo Weaver being a present day CIA agent from this deadly black-ops Department whose agents are known as Tourists. Steinhauer explained the inspiration for the name "Tourists" in a recent interview in which he says that he sees the "bubble" existence of its operatives as being based in part on his own life spent as an expatriate. He goes on to say: "It's a world without roots, carrying within it all the pros and cons this suggests... I knew that at any moment, if necessary, I could disappear". And in another interview Steinhauer says that he is not so much interested in the way that spies work as "... in how people deceive each other". For those of you familiar with Steinhauer's fiction this will go some way to explain the intricacies of paranoia and manipulation that drive his plots and this one lives up to the standard.

AN AMERICAN SPY is definitely more spy thriller then crime thriller, though plenty of crime is committed in the name of espionage. It is gripping and assured writing. The plot is labyrinthine and one that you might do well to mark out with a ball of string or a breadcrumb trail in order to make sure you hang onto the whos and the whys because the book also has a huge cast of characters. But these are predominantly well-written and individualised characters, including the wonderful six-year old Stephanie. If these characters were not so well realised the Byzantine manoeuvres of the plot may have been harder to follow. For this reason I might recommend that newcomers to the series read the previous books, THE TOURIST and THE NEAREST EXIT. Nevertheless I managed to hang on to Milo Weaver's coat tails as he ran through this world of murderous, self-serving patriotism, looking for a way to get his family and himself out of it all. And somehow you always know he will get out of it. I finished the book and couldn't help thinking about the title. What is meant by "an American spy"? An operative working for American intelligence? An operative within another agency who spies on America? Or those within American agencies who spy on each other. Take your pick. But read the book.

Lynn Harvey, England
April 2012

Lynn blogs at
Little Grey Doll.

More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 13/04/2012 14:35