me + olen steinhauer #richardarmitage
Seeing as how the Berlin Station publicity has gotten me intrigued, and prompted a bit by Herba (who read the German translation of his 2015 bestseller, All the Old Knives), I decided it was time to read at least one Olen Steinhauer novel. Steinhauer is the creator of Berlin Station, and has garnered a great deal of praise for his bestselling spy and suspense novels, with some of them under contract for filming.
After looking at the options, I decided for The Tourist (2009), the first title in a trilogy about a CIA agent named Milo Weaver, who has a pressing need to unravel who killed his best friend (CIA agent Angela Yates) and a whole passel of American three-letter agencies on his trail.
Steinhauer is often compared in criticism to John le Carré and Graham Greene, and I can’t figure out why, unless the critics haven’t read those authors. To put it bluntly, both of those authors are strong stylists and their works are a pleasure to read for their prose as much as their subject matter; they qualify as “literature.” In comparison, Steinhauer’s prose is pedestrian and his characters have none of the suppressed energy of a le Carré or Greene protagonist and (despite his efforts to make Milo into a philosopher) little of the intellectual depth. Steinhauer signals at the beginning with a relatively shocking first chapter that he is going for a “broken hero,” but claims about Milo’s suicidal tendencies aren’t really upheld in the remainder of the narrative. The emotional level of the work fell entirely flat for me, as I never developed much sympathy with Milo (despite the blows to which he is subjected, which include interrogation under electric shock). The biggest identification I made with any character was with his much-put-upon wife, Tina, who’s peripheral to the story. The Tourist is written in an even less complex style than a Robert Ludlum or Ken Follett novel. Another possible comparison is Tom Clancy, except that Clancy is big on technology and weaponry (or was when I was regularly reading him) and this novel is not. He’s not as violent or effects-ridden-thrilling as David Baldacci nor as historically oriented as Robert Harris. In the end, the book is competently written and the protagonist is a likeable, sane, humane individual who’s given a complex past that explains the plot but seems to have had little emotional impact on the character or his behavior under pressure.
(For legacy fans — although the above may sound dire, the book is a lot better than Chris Ryan’s original Strike Back novel.)
And: it’s absolutely the kind of book that makes a good movie.
Because: this book is a total page turner. Maybe not in the formulaic way of Dan Brown, where every chapter ends with a cliffhanger, but Steinhauer makes the mysteries that Milo is excavating interesting enough that I had to keep reading to find out the answers. He may not be a stylist but boy, can he ever write a plot. I would say about three quarters of the time I read a thriller, I have solved the mystery by at least three quarters of the way through, but I was surprised by plot developments twice in the last third of this book.
(Admission — perhaps I admire this work a bit more because I have no problem with style or characterization but struggle heavily with plot, myself.)
So — I’m going to read the other two Milo Weaver books because I am curious about how the first one ended. And I can imagine that Olen Steinhauer is more than capable of creating the sort of plot that will keep my attention for ten episodes of Berlin Station this fall. I think that the style “problem” Steinhauer seems to have will be addressed by the director of photography and the editors and the music person — if the ads we’ve seen are any indication. And we know that Richard Armitage will add plenty of emotional depth to the piece, just by looking into the camera and moving his forehead.
I know that Berlin Station is not The Tourist (George Clooney holds the film rights for this book, incidentally), but if the script is written at such a high level of sophistication, if it trusts the viewer to be able to come with it on the same level as The Tourist trusts the reader to unravel a series of complications, and Armitage does his usual thing, I am optimistic that we will have a winner on our hands.