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1 April 2012

An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer


http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/books/review/an-american-spy-by-olen-steinhauer.html

Pawn’s Move

‘An American Spy,’ by Olen Steinhauer, 386 pp. Minotaur Books. $25.99.

By BEN MACINTYRE

Published: March 30, 2012

Comrade Col. Xin Zhu, obese spy and head of the Expedition Agency within the Sixth Bureau of the Ministry of State Security, suspects there is a C.I.A. mole burrowing into China’s secrets. But he is under threat from Wu Liang and his ally, Yang Qing-Nian, of the Supervision and Liaison Committee, an offshoot of the Central Committee’s Political and Legislative Affairs Committee. Zhu believes Zhang Guo of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate is on his side, probably, but he is less sure of the veteran schemer Comrade Lt. Gen. Sun Bingjun.

If this plethora of Chinese names and Chinese bureaucracies is a little daunting, that’s exactly the intention of Olen Steinhauer, a spy novelist who refuses to make it easy for his readers, but rewards them richly in the end. Not for Steinhauer the simple, linear march of the traditional thriller. Rather, he drops the reader (and his characters) into situations of the most mind-bending complexity and forces them to work things out for themselves.

Not since John le Carré has a writer so vividly evoked the multilayered, multifaceted, deeply paranoid world of espionage, in which identities and allegiances are malleable and ever shifting, the mirrors of loyalty and betrayal reflecting one another to infinity. In this intensely clever, sometimes baffling book, it’s never quite clear who is manipulating whom, and which side is up.

In his earlier novels “The Tourist” and “The Nearest Exit,” Steinhauer introduced the Department of Tourism, a small, highly trained, perfectly ruthless black-ops cell within the C.I.A. responsible for doing the agency’s dirtiest work. At the start of “An American Spy,” Xin Zhu has sent the Tourists packing by luring some 33 of them to their deaths in a coordinated global hit. Out for revenge, the former head of the department, Alan Drummond, is determined to recruit Milo Weaver, one of the few surviving Tourists and the dour, damaged hero of Steinhauer’s two previous books.

But Weaver is trying to give it all up — the drink, the cigarettes, the spying, the lying — to spend time with an adored daughter (who is not biologically his), restore a marriage (undermined by deceit) and recover from the latest attempt to kill him (a bullet wound that has required the removal of part of his intestines). When Drummond disappears and then Milo’s family also vanishes, he is tricked back into the game, to his own annoyance. “You forgot that no one is above deception,” he admonishes himself. “You became as ­naïve as all the other civilians.”

Behind the distortions lie multiple self-deceptions, the personal evasions that muddy every action. Even the most powerful are fallible. Zhu believes his annihilation of the Department of Tourism is righteous vengeance for the death of his only son, preferring not to face the guilty truth that his young new wife, feeding him dumplings in their apartment high above Beijing, was formerly his daughter-in-law. Weaver can beat a man to pulp in an airport washroom as effectively as the next spy, but he’s no James Bond: he forgets to put salt in his cooking; he glumly chews nicotine gum; he has nightmares in which he fails to protect his daughter from a gang of thugs. The fat Chinese spy is playing Weaver, and being played himself, because the spies are themselves pawns of the spymasters in Washington and Beijing. “It’s extremely messy,” Zhu says, with understatement.

Steinhauer is more interested in twists of plot than turns of phrase, but the very bluntness of his novel’s writing adds to its impact. His women have less psychological depth: the wives of Drummond and Weaver are all but indistinguishable. A surviving Tourist operative named Leticia Jones is just a sexy killer of the old school. But where Steinhauer’s fiction succeeds masterfully is in the portrayal of one reality from different, deceptive angles, transferring his characters’ indecision and uncertainty to the page. The plot repeatedly shunts back and forth in chronology and perspective. Everyone lies, for different reasons. The picture is always opaque.

Real espionage is actually like this. Winston Churchill, a keen aficionado of wartime deception, described the spying game as “tangle within tangle, plot and counterplot, ruse and treachery, cross and double-cross, true agent, false agent, double agent, gold and steel, the bomb, the dagger and the firing party . . . interwoven in many a texture so intricate as to be incredible and yet true.” Spying is itself a form of fiction, the creating of invented worlds, which perhaps explains why so many of the best spy novelists were once in the intelligence business: W. Somerset Maugham, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and le Carré himself.

I don’t know if Steinhauer was ever a spy — he writes with the sort of detailed relish that suggests personal experience — but he certainly has the right name for it. Gustav Steinhauer was Kaiser Wilhelm’s spy chief during World War I. He established an elaborate German espionage network in Britain and even toured the country, in disguise, the month before war broke out. For reasons that have never been fully explained, the British security service, M.I.5, knew where he was, but didn’t arrest him. He may have been a double agent. Perhaps Olen Steinhauer is related to Gustav Steinhauer. Someone should ask him. But I doubt you’d get a straight answer.

Ben Macintyre’s latest book, “Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies,” will be published in July.

A version of this review appeared in print on April 1, 2012, on page BR9 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Pawn’s Move.