Espionage is so not my genre of choice, so kudos to the talented Steinhauer for drawing me into the dark world of Milo Weaver, a “Tourist” in the CIA’s ultra-clandestine agency, the “Department of Tourism.” In tough economic times, the agency is not above exploiting the “fiscal black holes that pay for the department.” At the end of The Tourist, Milo Weaver leaves his wife and daughter behind, agreeing to a prison term after a crisis in Sudan that achieves its objective but leaves a raft of innocents dead. Picking up from that point, The Nearest Exit plunges an unhappy Weaver back into the cauldron of his discontent.
Milo’s nemesis in that thriller was Senator Nathan Irwin, who appears in this novel as well, this time busy with plans to control the financial resources of a spy network jeopardized by budget woes and the frightening possibility of a Chinese mole who can bring the whole agency down. Yearning only to satisfy his superiors and leave the career that has swallowed his life - Milo is impressively talented at clandestine ops, after all - his resources and instincts remain unimpeachable.
A paucity of available agents brings Weaver reluctantly back into the fold, regardless of his increasingly bifurcated psyche, facing a new director and the same problems, teasing the snarled threads of a puzzle to reveal the truth or fallacy of the mole among them. Given a series of assignments to test his commitment, Milo succeeds in spite of the agency’s duplicity, grudgingly admiring the Chinese operative who has managed to nearly destroy the Department of Tourism. The stakes of this game are huge, every false move of significant political import, albeit made by individuals facing their own doubts and the unreliability of information gleaned in the field.
This is Steinhauer’s genre, a believable scenario of intrigue, government agencies and various powers’ global investment in manipulating resources to accomplish otherwise unattainable goals. These are life-and-death conflicts that take Milo, under an assortment of pseudonyms, from the U.S. to Germany and England, the elusive Chinese spy changing identities to fit each situation in a classic cat-and-mouse game with international implications. Mind-boggling as it all is, the reader stays in the loop (looking over Milo’s shoulder, as it were) and privy to the nightmarish decisions he faces, the secrets he keeps, and the often fatal consequences of his decisions.
I lucked into The Tourist, so when The Nearest Exit was published, I picked it up with a confidence that has been rewarded with another spellbinding, terrifying foray into the netherworld of international spycraft and the inherent quandary of never knowing whom to trust. With all the novel’s unexpected twists and turns, Weaver remains quick on his feet, but the emotional cost of his involvement with the Department of Tourism has exacted a terrible toll on a man who has seen too much of the corruption of power: “When your own country is trying to kill you, it’s not called treason. It’s called survival.”