Thursday, March 19, 2009

Book Reviews: 'The Tourist' Plays 'The Spanish Game'

[cross-posted on goodreads.com]

I'm disappointed. But if all you expect in a spy thriller is a convoluted plot with suspense and surprises, you'll probably be satisfied.

My suspicion that Olen Steinhauer's The Tourist might be too similar to Charles Cumming's The Spanish Game proved correct, I'm sorry to say. No, the plots aren't the same, just equally complex. However, the characterizations in both books are rather shallow. It's all about action here, possibly so the movie plot "falls out" of the read for the jaded and not too bookish Hollywood buyer.

More significantly, the two main characters could well be the same person, although Milo Weaver (literally, the "straw man" from his name), the operative known as "the Tourist," is a dozen years older than Alec Milius in the Cumming book. Weaver is a Yank working for the Company and Milius is a Brit ex-agent, but both have the same M.O. They change identities like clothes, move effortlessly through the capitals of Europe, and in general act like work-obsessed commercial travelers (a deliberate ploy) who are tired of their jobs. When the cell phone rings and the proper code words are given, they go kill someone. They are not supposed to ask why, except when they can't help it and trigger yet another quest for truth. Yawn.

Both books are written in USA Today seventh-grade plain-vanilla style, which is to say, with as little distinctive literary style as possible. What those publishers want, apparently, is a quick page-turner with no aftertaste, a not-too-challenging pastime for that airline flight or a couple of diverting sessions on the beach during the obligatory family vacation.

To compare either of these writers to John Le Carre (as their jacket blurbs shamelessly do) is to ignore the master's mastery of character. At times, Weaver and Milius express regrets for things they've done. However, I know them so little, and care even less, that I simply don't buy their remorse. I had the same feeling when the movie version of Otto Schindler complained he could have saved one more. To that character, life decisions were equations, and in his case it just happened that the calculus worked in favor of morality.

As to plotting, if you remember The Maltese Falcon, it will come as no surprise that in these noirish worlds, your best friend (or lover or kindly boss) will be your betrayer, maybe even your executioner. Wouldn't it be a surprise if your worst enemy turned out to be your secret savior? I'm sure that, too, has been done, but not here. Expect four or five "surprise" connections, duplicities, and turnarounds from characters you've already met. Certainly, Weaver and Milius are sufficiently paranoid to always be on the lookout for them.

Once you're wise to their game, you'll be as tired of their jobs as they are.

Oh, and did I mention that the Americans are the bad guys? And their secret agenda is -- wait for this -- oil and world domination?

I include the links if despite my grousing you're a fan of the genre or you just want to say you read the book before the movie came out.


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