Thursday, September 02, 2010

"The Nearest Exit" and "The Tourist"

These two Olen Steinhauer novels have received major praise within their international spy and espionage genre. The reviews from major newspapers and magazines put these books in the ranks of John le Carre and Graham Greene, and one even mentions the best of the lot by far, Charles McCarry, my opinion.

Steinhauer does write well. Unlike his prior group of books that were set in Eastern European Soviet era times, these stories are right here in the 2000's and the political and country commentary is thoughtful and at times insightful. The places are detailed with precision and the linear plots keep one's attention better than any television show and without the commercials to boot. Character development is not especially nuanced, but the caricatures are fully drawn. Don't look too hard for humor or subtlety or rarified intellect, wrong genre in general but the old masters mentioned above do slip some in from time to time, while Steinhauer is not quite there yet. That's not a totally accurate comment. Somehow Steinhauer's descriptions of observed mannerisms and behaviors in situations that require astute judgement, such as eluding a tail, work well on the subtlety side.

What bugs me most about those comparisons, however, is that when reading le Carre, Greene, or McCarry I feel as if the descriptions of places and events are second nature, developed from personal or shared experiences that in the first instance were not for literary purpose. With Steinhauer it feels as if it is all expertly researched and developed, in the first instance, for writing books. One could ask, why does that matter if the books entertain and to some extent inform the reader.

What's the difference between a hot house tomato and one grown in a Tuscan backyard. One is a step closer to authenticity and it somehow has a depth that the other does not. Choose the one you want, if the difference matters.


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