The Nearest Exit, By Olen Steinhauer

CIA killer reanimates spy yarns
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This second outing for Olen Steinhauer's CIA operative Milo Weaver is a summary of, or perhaps an epitaph for, the entire genre of espionage fiction.

It's a summary, in fact, of its great achievements (from Eric Ambler to John le Carré) along with the distinct flavour added by the best American writers (such as Alan Furst and Robert Littell). On the strength of The Nearest Exit, Steinhauer has bought the right to be drinking at the same bar as his illustrious predecessors.

As with all best spy novelists, particularly since the genre has found its feet again after the post-Cold War wilderness years, Steinhauer achieves a perfect balance between style and ideas, never labouring his points. Few readers need persuading just what a bleak and amoral landscape the spooks move in. And the author puts his cold-eyed insights at the service of a narrative that is simply irresistible.

Milo works for an ultra-secret black-ops branch of the CIA handed the most deadly and deniable work. So secret is the Department of Tourism that even many agents doubt its existence. Milo is one of its most ruthless operatives, possessing a Fleming-style licence to kill and using it with (generally speaking) few moral scruples.

All that is about to change: he is told to assassinate a young girl, and Milo finds himself unable to carry out this assignment. He is the only "Tourist" with a daughter, and this inconvenient reminder of real-life attachments is to prove extremely dangerous. Milo wants out - but aficionados of the genre will know that retiring from the clandestine profession of government assassin is never easy. Milo's damaged relationship with his wife may not be strong enough to keep his essential humanity from vanishing again beneath his tough carapace.

Have we been taken to the unforgiving spy universe once too often? That thought does, admittedly, surface at times throughout Steinhauer's otherwise mesmeric novel, but the author has the prestidigitator's skill at distracting us from the over-familiar material here. If we're taken down roads travelled often before, his prodigious ability in the areas of atmosphere and characterisation more than compensate, with Milo an artfully-drawn protagonist; his grim inner conflict is handled with total authority. Perhaps Steinhauer is making the same bitter points as Le Carré and co., but there is real precision here rather than generalisations. The pessimism of the world-view is never phoney. Ironically, the reader is coaxed into a sense of quiet exhilaration, despite the comfortless milieu. There is a reminder of John Buchan's observation: "I saw how thin the veneer of civilisation was."