I confess – I made it past page 100, but there isn’t enough time to spend on a book that is already destined to receive my scathing review. Sometimes, rarely, a novel can “get better” as it goes, and truly impress. But even those novels demand the prerequisite that the writing is good.
This book is not well-written. No clever turns of phrase, no striking descriptions. To be clear, I am not a one who admires what is called “purple prose.” The greatest story tellers were able to convey a scene without resorting to overwrought flourishes and thesaurus dumps, but rather with a punchy analogy or an exceedingly apt piece of imagery. This novel is far from purple prose, and just as far from anything resembling punchy minimalism.
Ultimately, the novel is a thin stew of indistinguishable characters who all speak in the same way and even exhibit the same mannerisms, like “rapping” their knuckles on tables, glass windows, and other objects (at least three different characters have done this so far). Every character exhibits a flare for melodrama – not just the characters the author instructs us are melodramatic.
The plot is serviceable, and moves at a clip, but is ultimately implausible. This is trained-monkey style novel-craft. It is the equivalent of shoes made in China. Another book to fill the shelves and entertain dull BBQ-Americans during their annual trip to the beach.
I cannot blame the author, who is merely a product of his age (the novel was written in 2009) and likely has made a pretty penny off his spy thrillers. Good for him. But if you pick up this book, or any like it, understand that what you are doing to paying ten dollars to engage in a rote exercise of mass-manufacture story telling. The margins are even clipped, probably to save on cost.
My last gripe is with the coterie of authors and critics who have plastered the book’s cover and interior pages with ridiculous and nonsensical praise. Stephen King, Time, the Chicago-Sun Times, The New York Times, January Magazine, Kirkus Reviews, and Lee Child have all called this book a successor to the great spy novels of John le Carre. King says The Tourist is the best spy novel that wasn’t written by le Carre (which I suppose is at least possible, but highly improbable, given that people like Graham Greene and Ian Fleming existed). January Magazine calls The Tourist a complex successor to le Carre’s classic The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
This begs the question – have these reviewers ever read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, or for that matter any novel written by le Carre? I have. Allow me to assist: Steinhauer’s The Tourist is the cold chicken McNugget to le Carre’s Bojangles 2-breast dinner and a hot biscuit on the side.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold:
He left her flat and turned down the empty street towards the park. It was foggy. Some way down the road – not far, twenty yards, perhaps a bit more – stood the figure of a man in a raincoat, short and rather plump. He was leaning against the railings of the park, silhouetted in the shifting mist. As Leamas approached, the mist seemed to thicken, closing in around the figure at the railings, and when it parted the man was gone.
She showed her State Department ID to a bald, cliche-ridden bodyguard with a wired earplug and asked to speak with Romany Ugrimov. The large man spoke Russian into his lapel, listened to an answer, then walked them up a dim, steep stairwell of worn stone. At the top he unlocked a heavy wooden door.
Ugrimov’s apartment seemed to have been flown in direct from Manhattan: shimmering wood floors, modern designer furniture, plasma television, and double-paned sliding doors leading to a long terrace that overlooked an evening panorama of Venetian rooftops to the Grand Canal. Even Charles had to admit it was breathtaking.
Take notes, aspiring authors. There comes a time when you’ve offered so many details that the returns on your investment in specifics are not only diminishing to the final effect you are hoping to achieve, but will have a negative impact on the scene you are trying to convey.
Venetian rooftops – how are they different from any other rooftops? If they are exceedingly different, why not make that clear? Also, we already know the characters are in Venice, so its purpose is not to notify us of the characters’ location. Double-paned sliding doors – why do we care about that detail? Can we picture it? Will we picture it, especially when tasked to also remember shimmering wood floors and modern designer furniture?
Le Carre, meanwhile, achieves a much more powerful effect, and does it with fewer words.
In le Carre’s description, we are left without any elaboration on the type of park in which the figure is standing. We do not know what kind of railing he is leaning against. We do not know how long the railing is and whether it is made of wood or painted steel. Most essentially, we don’t know whether the paunch man leaning on the rail is cliche-ridden or not, which to Steinhauer was an essential point worth mentioning about his obligatory Russian meat-head guard.
The reason Le Carre succeeds here is because he has let the minds of his readers subconsciously fill in the blanks. He lets his readers do the work for him so he doesn’t muck up the mood of his story. Without much concentration, I am able to instantly imagine a steel rail without being told that detail. The fog, for whatever reason, is associated in my brain with a steel rail that has perhaps accumulated some of the air’s moisture and is slick to the touch. The man is leaning on it safely because he has a raincoat on and isn’t worried about getting his trousers wet. These unmentioned details, which I have embellished in the bowels of my own thoughts, are not important to the story on a conscious level, but they insidiously infect the reader’s perception of the man on the rail and the general milieu of the scene.
The very fact that the rail-leaner is even mentioned in le Carre’s novel indicates that he is important to the story, whereas Steinhauer’s Russian doorman will likely never appear again in the 500 remaining pages, unless in a similarly meaningless fashion. Because I lost faith early on in Steinhauer’s ability to tell me only the essential details, I can no longer trust that what he tells me is worth internalizing or remembering. The double-paned windows go in one eye and out the other, as it were, and nothing of the story is lost for my inattentiveness. If this happens in your own story, the detail doesn’t need to be mentioned in the first place.
This is a basic of quality story-craft. A spy novel, at the end of the day, is a novel, and all novels MUST pay dutiful attention to the psychology of the reader. Where le Carre does, Steinhauer does not. They could both be writing teen romance novels, and it would be the same. Le Carre can trace his lineage to the FFlaubert a and the Ford Maddox Fords and the Evelyn Waughs. Steinhauer’s progenitor is Dean Koontz. The fact that their novels contain spy intrigue is the first, and last, similarity.