It was a pleasure to watch events unfold and Olen Steinhauer's skills evolve over the five-novel series he set in an unnamed Soviet bloc nation -- from the police procedural "The Bridge of Sighs" (2003), in which the idealistic cops of the First District Militia Station are introduced, through the adventures of the enigmatic state security officer Brano Sev, to "Victory Square" (2007), which reunites the older yet wiser colleagues in a masterful mix of police procedural and espionage novel that illuminates the human dimension of a crucial historical period without sacrificing a crackling good plot.
Although reading the last installment was a bittersweet affair, reports that Steinhauer had something else up his sleeve -- a contemporary international thriller that had attracted the attention of George Clooney and Warner Bros. -- surfaced almost immediately and, given Clooney's nuanced portrayals of hard-bitten heroes in "Syriana" and other thrillers, raised hopes for what "The Tourist" might offer as grist for the literary and cinematic mills.
"The Tourist's" hero stands in marked contrast to any of Steinhauer's previous characters, or what has come before in the novels of masters like John le Carré or Len Deighton. It's Sept. 10, 2001, and Charles Alexander is on a plane bound for Slovenia. Hours before, he had thwarted an attempt on the life of a U.S.-supported Dutch politician by an assassin known only as "the Tiger."
His reward is a new assignment, one that requires him to team up with CIA colleague Angela Yates to capture Frank Dawdle, a veteran CIA agent who has stolen $3 million meant to buy information on a Bosnian-Serb war criminal. Charles is burned out -- stomach cramping on receiving his new assignment, popping Dexedrine like breath mints as he acknowledges "he'd slipped to some secluded corner of the extremes, some far reach of utter imbalance." So tenuous is his mental state that he had considered standing up and facing the still-shooting assassin in Amsterdam, saved only by a cellphone call from boss Tom Grainger that directs him to Slovenia.
The real nature of Charles' assignment, why he keeps referring to himself as a tourist and why Dawdle stole the money are obscured by two murders soon discovered in Slovenia and a hastily arranged trip to Venice, where the pair track the elusive Dawdle to a Russian's palazzo in which Charles is violently brought face to face with a woman in labor -- and his own mortality.
Before the reader can glean much of anything from this convoluted prologue, "The Tourist" fast forwards to Independence Day 2007, when Charles is again tracking the Tiger, a.k.a. Samuel Roth, through the American South. When Charles finally catches up with his long-sought nemesis, he learns he's been manipulated into following Roth so he can be enlisted to find out who has mysteriously infected the assassin with a deadly virus.
But in the intervening years between their showdown in Amsterdam and their fateful encounter in Blackdale, Tenn., Charles Alexander has literally become another person. He has reverted to using his real name, Milo Weaver, and is a seeming bourgeois living with his wife and child in Brooklyn's trendy Park Slope neighborhood, with a desk job as a Manhattan "travel agent." The tourists of the novel's title, however, are members of an international black ops network. What hasn't changed is Milo's ingrained paranoia or the web of lies he's constructed to keep himself from the emotional abyss that isolates him from others and his own feelings.
Milo's quest to unravel who doomed Samuel Roth brings him into conflict with a dogged agent from Homeland Security, reveals political infighting between Grainger and his agency bosses, raises suspicions about his old friend Angela and causes more than a little marital strife with wife Tina.
But a startling reversal puts Milo on the run and makes readers realize that what appeared to be merely a slam-bang prologue holds the key to deeper secrets and revelations about who Milo Weaver really is, how he tangentially connects to characters in Steinhauer's earlier series, and why Grainger's oft-repeated phrase "keeping an empire is ten times more difficult than gaining one" has such devastating consequences for America on an increasingly volatile world stage.
Although readers can hope to see it on the screen, "The Tourist" should be savored now. As rich and intriguing as the best of Le Carré, Deighton or Graham Greene, Steinhauer's complex, moving spy novel is perfect for our uncertain, emotionally fraught times.
Woods is a writer and frequent contributor to The Times' book reviews.