Novel: An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer

Olen Steinhauer concludes the twisty Milo Weaver trilogy with An American Spy (2012), and it’s a satisfying wrap-up to the series, rounding up the memorable characters of its predecessors for one last, tangled conflict of espionage. I didn’t find it quite as outstanding as The Nearest Exit, which I think is the most polished and neatly structured of the three, but it’s still a brisk, challenging showcase for Steinhauer’s intense, convoluted plots and suspenseful action.

In the wake of the last book’s events, Weaver is retired again, living peacefully in New York with his family, recovering from his wounds and looking for work. His last connection to the spy world is his former boss, Alan Drummond, with whom he maintains a casual acquaintance. But Drummond clearly hasn’t gotten over his past career failures, and has a few tricks up his sleeve; he attempts to lure Weaver into joining one last operation. While Weaver refuses at first, he’s ultimately swept into events by forces beyond his control — which lead him back into the orbit of his legendary rival, Xin Zhu of the Guoanbu, who has his hands full on the other side of the world, dealing with political pressure on one side and the search for a mole within the Chinese intelligence community on the other.

Steinhauer’s narrative here is perhaps even more multifaceted and complex than in the previous two books, ricocheting through timelines and viewpoints to gradually unfold a murderously complex story. A difference this time is the focus on Xin Zhu, the lurking, villainous presence of The Nearest Exit, who emerges from the shadows to take central stage in a thorny political drama within the Chinese intelligence establishment. The way Steinhauer manages all his plot threads is quite astonishing; there are at least five or six international agencies butting heads at any given moment, each with different agendas and information. But manage them he does, and if this requires occasionally noticeable sleight of hand — withholding a crucial bit of information in the service of a later reveal, for example — I’ll forgive him the odd “cheat” in light of the overall effect. Nobody writes the complexities of the spy game quite like Steinhauer, layers upon layers upon layers, and this trilogy has definitely propelled him to the top of my A list.

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