If you read THE TOURIST by Olen Steinhauer, then you will want to check out the sequel, THE NEAREST EXIT. If you haven’t, never fear: Steinhauer does an excellent job of recapping the need-to-know from the previous book to keep the flow of his latest moving, even though he passes it out in breadcrumbs instead of a huge mound of, say, “what has gone before” at the beginning. For the uninitiated, suffice to say that “tourists,” for purposes of this discussion, are a select group that is part of The Company, off-the-books, black-op agents who operate for the CIA and provide that agency with plausible deniability when things go wrong. They have left their identities behind; they have no homes, no property, no nothing, other than the ability to go from place to place doing dirty jobs that someone has deemed to be necessary.
I can only think of a handful of books that take such a complex plot and lead the reader through it so confidently and assuredly as THE NEAREST EXIT. It begins almost immediately (and maybe even a bit before) where THE TOURIST ends. Milo Weaver, who had his ups and downs in that novel, is reluctantly attempting to get back into the good graces of his employer. It is difficult for him to do so, in no small part because he is unique as tourists go: married, with a stepdaughter who adores him. On the outs with his wife, Weaver is given unrelated assignments that he believes to be part of a series of tests to ascertain his loyalties and abilities.
All goes well until he is assigned to kidnap and murder a 15-year-old girl. It is an unbelievable request, made more so by the fact that the girl has no conceivable value as a security element. His orders, though, are clear. Weaver attempts to fulfill half the task: the kidnapping, without murdering the girl. He succeeds while failing miserably (that’s right), and in doing so only makes everything worse. There is a reason why Weaver has been so tasked, and it is a horrible one, but a reason nonetheless. For the reader, it is made all the more terrible by the fact that it somehow has the ring of real-world truth to it: it is hard to escape the feeling that this event is playing out somewhere. Despite his error, Weaver is still needed. There is apparently a mole in The Company, a spy for another entity buried so deeply in the organization as to be hiding in plain sight. Everyone is right except when everyone is wrong, and there are plenty of times when this is the case --- from the beginning right up to the enigmatic ending.
THE NEAREST EXIT is more than a clever plot, though. Steinhauer is a master at pacing. Just when you think he has wrapped things up a bit too early, that’s when he tosses you a smoke bomb. When things clear up and you begin to relax, he drops the plot equivalent of a suitcase bomb in your lap and walks away while it’s still ticking. Then, once you have recovered from that and the radiation count gets low, he tosses a literary hand grenade into the room, just to make sure you are paying attention. He also nearly pulls off a classy little maneuver: the most interesting character in the book --- and the smartest as well --- is one we only hear about and never get to truly meet, at least by the time the novel ends. Maybe Steinhauer will take care of that in his next work, which, if there is any justice in the world, people will be queuing up at midnight to buy.
THE NEAREST EXIT transcends genres. It is an espionage thriller (what we used to call a “spy novel”), a mystery, a romance, and, yes, a horror novel as well. You won’t find clowns crawling out from underneath a bridge, ghosts for sale over the Internet, or vampires, at least as that term is commonly used. No, such horror as there is here is worse. One character wonders if the world is worth saving. You might ask the same question upon completion of this book. But you should read it anyway.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 12, 2011