It’s spy versus himself in ‘The Nearest Exit’

Special to the Los Angeles Times

The Nearest Exit

A Novel

Olen Steinhauer

St. Martin’s/Minotaur: 404 pp., $25.99

In the last 20 years, there have been real-life events that have given pause to readers and writers of spy thrillers, events that make us reconsider the tenets of the genre and how it will evolve. The fall of the Berlin Wall, glasnost and 9/11 created the possibility for new allies — and new enemies — for America, which has necessitated a new kind of spy as surely as John le Carré's George Smiley or Len Deighton’s unnamed hero were necessary spies for the Cold War era.

Olen Steinhauer makes another bid to be the espionage writer for our times with “The Nearest Exit,” the second novel to feature Milo Weaver, a family man in his 30s first seen in 2009’s “The Tourist.” Not the vacationers one would suspect, “tourists” are black ops agents in the Department of Tourism, a clandestine CIA division that has 38 agents around the globe engaged in covert operations. Among them was a central event in the first novel: the assassination of a Muslim cleric in Sudan that led to riots and the death of more than 80 people and disrupted China’s supply of oil from that nation. That event also led indirectly to Milo’s marriage and family being placed in jeopardy, his ouster from the Department of Tourism, prison, and the deaths of a colleague as well as his boss and mentor, Thomas Grainger.

Anticipating his demise, Grainger planted a poison pill — a letter posthumously sent by his attorneys to Henry Gray, an American expat journalist living in Budapest — that could turn the Sudanese assassination into an international debacle. Gray is instructed to give the letter only to Milo, but before Gray can do anything, James Einner, another tourist, breaks into Gray’s apartment, throws him over the balcony and pockets the letter.

Cut to Milo, who, fresh out of prison, is attempting to get his old job back. Using the name Sebastian Hall, one of many aliases, Milo’s probationary period involves completing a series of menial black bag jobs — withdrawing money from a bank in Istanbul in the name of Charles Little and opening an account in London under the same name, mailing a sealed envelope from Berlin to a Theodor Wartmüller in Munich, murdering the patriarch of a London crime family. He’s just completed one of his bigger jobs—raising $20 million by robbing a Swiss museum of four masterpieces — when Alan Drummond, his new handler, calls with Job Nine, one that stops Milo cold. He’s to kill Adriana Stanescu, a Moldovan immigrant teen living with her parents in Berlin, and make the body disappear.

One of the joys of “The Tourist” and “The Nearest Exit” is watching Milo struggle with the moral dilemmas caused by doing the bidding of his masters: “Though he could go through all the motions, the fact was that he was ruined. He was no longer Sebastian Hall, Tourist, but Milo Weaver, father.” So, with the help of his own father, a Russian spymaster and “secret ear of the United Nations,” Milo devises a plot to kidnap the girl and keep her safe until he can find a way out of the mess.

Milo goes to Zurich, where Drummond gives him a new assignment: Interrogate a Ukrainian defector who insists his contact, one Xin Zhu, has placed a Chinese mole in the Department of Tourism. The story that emerges interweaves elements of the Sudanese assassination with Milo’s present assignments in a manner that will cause readers to marvel at the connections Steinhauer makes among the international cast of characters — notably the shadowy Zhu, Tourist Einner, even a U.S. senator with his fingers in too many pies. And while the book lags at times, the final payoff is breathtaking — both for the Department of Tourism and for Milo.

In the process, Steinhauer delivers another winner in “The Nearest Exit,” a spy novel that asks deeper questions about the price we extract from individuals in the pursuit of the so-called greater good and the innocents who become collateral damage. It’s a subject as relevant to a spy within the CIA as it is to any of us: That’s a point that — through the prism of Milo’s humanity and the dangerous web in which he finds himself enmeshed — Steinhauer makes abundantly and thrillingly clear.

Woods is a book critic and the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.