Olen Steinhauer has gained a reputation as one of the most compelling authors of espionage fiction writing today. He is best known for the Milo Weaver Trilogy (The Tourist, The Nearest Exit, An American Spy) and the five-book Yalta Boulevard Cycle in addition to three standalone novels. All these books have appeared since 2003. He also recently created an American TV series, Berlin Station.
All Steinhauer’s previous books are set largely or exclusively outside the United States. But his most recent effort, The Middleman, is all about domestic American politics. The book describes a Second American Revolution—from the Left. Which appears to be why this book “took five years from idea to final draft,” compared to the “couple months” required for his previous novel. As Steinhauer explains in the Acknowledgments, “I was wrestling with subjects I knew well and cared about deeply but had never fully committed myself to, and that inexperience showed.” Unfortunately, it still somewhat shows in the final product.
The Middleman by Olen Steinhauer (2018) 368 pages ★★★☆☆
A Second American Revolution seems unlikely
The result is that The Middleman comes across as a vehicle for Steinhauer to express his intense frustration with the sad state of American democracy. One character after another sounds off on the corruption of the US political system. I agree with much of what they say. But the ways in which they act out those sentiments are simply not plausible. A Second American Revolution seems unlikely at best. And it seems even less likely to look like the action in this novel.
The story in The Middleman unfolds in contemporary America. For some reason I find difficult to understand, Steinhauer set the novel in 2017 and 2018, using dates that have already passed into history. This creates the impression that he is writing alternate history, yet that genre usually requires many years of historical perspective. Steinhauer would have been better served omitting the years. That would have given readers a little more space to suspend disbelief. Obviously, the Second American Revolution he writes about in this novel simply didn’t happen.
For better reading . . .
Instead of this somewhat disappointing effort, I wholeheartedly recommend Olen Steinhauer’s brilliant Yalta Boulevard cycle set in Eastern Europe.
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