“The Middleman” by Olen Steinhauer, 357 pages, Minotaur Books, $27.99 hardcover.
The novels of Olen Steinhauer have been recommended to readers of this newspaper who like thoughtful, tightly drawn works with espionage-based lots.
Steinhauer creates complex characters, mottled with flaws, who may lie hidden in the shadows of a book or two before they are drawn into key roles in later works. In this he is like Faulkner, though for his fine writing and for focusing on spies, he is often compared to le Carré.
His last spare but excellent volume, “All the Old Knives,” was published three years ago. Steinhauer has since written a screenplay of that book for a movie in which, according to Variety, Chris Pine and Michelle Williams will star.
Ever prolific (his first five novels were published in five years, from 2003 to 2007), the author has also, in the interim, developed the series “Berlin Station” for cable channel EPIX, creating an entirely new set of CIA spies and missions. With two successful seasons behind him, a third season kicks off this month.
Still, he found time to publish an 11th novel, “The Middleman.” It is a story of homegrown American turmoil. It may also be a case of bad timing. Why write an imaginative work about political unrest in the America we now inhabit? To find out which is stranger — fact or fiction?
In “Middleman” Steinhauer sketches an America in which a merely charismatic young man named Martin Bishop calls for vague change, not based on fear, but by calling for people to talk things out. From this, Bishop sets up a small movement — the Massive Brigade. Its greatest hold on its members is to direct their social disappearance.
One day in the summer of 2017, in one invisible and almost untraceable low-tech way, 400 mostly young and nondescript followers just quietly drop out and disappear. Elements of the Occupy/”We are the 99 percent” movement mark the Massive Brigade. There is no infrastructure to bind it together. Martin Bishop is the inspirational head, but he rejects traditional leadership in favor of aphorisms, questions and silence.
While those tactics might have served a small, temporary monastic event, they do not prove effective when instances of bloody violence, traced directly to the Brigade, erupt and bring out the power of the FBI, to save lives and investigate. Or is the violence because the FBI is dispatched?
Once the Bureau appears, the hallmark of a Steinhauer house-of-mirrors with heroic villains and villainous heroes begins to appear. But the fundamental plot seems strung out, not as pleasingly taut as Steinhauer’s earlier works have been.
“The Middleman” may fail the high standard Steinhauer has set in his previous novels but still exceeds its field. Perhaps he has overextended himself creatively or has just not spent enough time in his homeland of late. Born and educated in the U.S., he now lives part time abroad. The last few years have been times in which so much has changed so rapidly that even many who have lived it day-to-day feel they cannot follow or understand it. Few are so brave as to fictionalize these times.