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An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer
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's review
Feb 01, 2012

really liked it
Read in February, 2012

Already world-weary, Weaver now has a bullet hole in his gut
“An American Spy,” the third installment involving our principled but reluctant hero Milo Weaver at first seems to lack some of the feints and flourishes that made “The Tourist” and “The Nearest Exit” so compelling.

This time and in the beginning the espionage thriller just doesn’t quite match the craft and subtlety of the previous two. The narrative, a global game of cat-and-mouse, doesn’t really kick in until half-way through. Once it does, though, we get the Steinhauer treatment we’ve been hoping for.

Weaver, ex-CIA spook and already world-weary at 38, is now walking around with a “bullet hole in his gut.” His intestines are still mending after he was shot in the abdomen outside his Park Slope home at the end of the “The Nearest Exit.” Weaver is looking for work, something without a whole lot of travel, intrigue or danger.

To know Weaver is to understand that family, for him, comes first. When wife or child is at risk, Weaver acts. In this book, his wife Tina and step-daughter Stephanie are threatened with harm by Xin Zhu, a stealthy Colonel in the Guoanbu, the Chinese intelligence service. Xin Zhu wants to trade the safety of Weaver’s family for the American’s information about a CIA plot against him and the Chinese government, a scheme that would also disrupt the Beijing Summer Olympics.

The CIA covert action is in part retaliation for Xin Zhu’s diabolical masterminding of the massacre at the end of “The Nearest Exit” in which an entire clandestine CIA department was all but wiped out when thirty-three CIA agents, members of the clandestine “Department of Tourism” were annihilated in an operatic act of epic vengeance and violence.

That’s the surface of a deeply layered narrative, which becomes as complex as a Chinese puzzle box with the truth like a precious gem stone, secured safely inside. “An American Spy” is an international thriller. The action moves from New York to London, Dubai, Hong Kong, the Colorado Rockies as well as Beijing.

It’s also a technological spy story where the espionage agents use the latest devices and adopt new identities as often as they throw away cell phones. One of the story’s most harrowing set pieces involves a wave of violence taking place inside the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong that we watch remotely as it unfolds in streaming video on a computer screen in Xin Zhu’s Beijing office.

Much of the novel is taken up explaining what happened in the previous two books. Related to that, it’s a slight complaint that a good share of the action in “An American Spy” seems to take place off-stage. We often learn of events, interactions and incidents after the fact, in passages that feel more like exposition than live-action. I wanted to experience the story unfolding first-hand – I wanted to be there when things were happening and I wanted Weaver to be stage center more often.

Like Xin Zhu, who is masterly at obfuscation, Steinhauer is expert at misdirection. Be careful about what you believe to be or assume is accurate. It’s likely what you think you know will turn out later to be false or only partially true. Reality is elusive in the world of espionage. A spy’s job, never easy always treacherous, is to uncover the truth. As readers, we’re trying to stay one step ahead of the game. Steinhauer doesn’t make that easy, but he sure makes it fun.

“An American Spy” ends with a final twist, a reversal that opens the door open to fourth installment. I hope that’s the case. It means we all have something to look forward to.
[4.5 stars]
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