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An American Spy

Tuesday, 18 June, 2013

With all this talk of the NSA and its activities, espionage has stormed back onto the front pages. Perfect time to publish a spy novel set in China, the USA and Germany, one should think, and cometh the hour, cometh the man in the form of Olen Steinhauer. That surname suggests another Nordic star but Steinhauer was born in Baltimore and attended the University of Texas, Austin. He now lives in Budapest and he’s bidding to be the new John le Carré. Given the quality of An American Spy, he’s got a great hand of cards.

An American Spy And better again, Steinhauer has got a great sense of the Zeitgeist because he’s peopled An American Spy with characters such as Comrade Colonel Xin Zhu, the corpulent head of the Expedition Agency within Beijing’s Sixth Bureau of the Ministry of State Security. He’s had 33 CIA agents killed across the world in a breathtaking act of liquidation, but he’s got to watch his back because Wu Liang and his associate, Yang Qing-Nian, of the Supervision and Liaison Committee, a branch of the Central Committee’s Political and Legislative Affairs Committee, are not fans. Xin Zhu speaks:

“It wasn’t just revenge, you know. Everyone thinks that’s what it was — the committee, you, probably even the Americans. Revenge factored into it, but it was also a practical decision. That’s something I’ll have to explain on Monday morning. By eradicating one of their secret departments, we have sent a serious message to the Americans, the same message we want to send with the Olympic Games. That we are the primary force in the world. We are a nation that has suffered long enough — that’s the past. The present is this: We are a superpower of unfathomable riches, and we will not stand for interference, particularly from a country on the other side of the planet that still refers to itself as the world’s only superpower.”

Yes, it’s only fiction but le Carré’s fiction was infused with fact and there’s a lot in An American Spy to suggest that Steinhauer intimately understands the nexus of global strategy and dirty deeds, too. His portrayal of Zhu is measured and menacing and the useful idiots who marched in Hong Kong at the weekend in solidarity with Edward Snowden would do will to read An American Spy. There are no paradises upon this earth.


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