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In the wake of the success of things like the Bourne books, every other book these days seems to involve a top secret black ops government department so to stand out, a thriller needs to be something very special. Whatever that magic ingredient is, The Nearest Exit doesn't have it. It's a perfectly competent thriller, but does doesn't have anything that's not been done dozens of times before.
Milo Weaver works for The Department of Tourism, not, as it sounds a gentle government agency responsible for promoting the delights of America to foreign visitors, but rather a top-secret black ops organisation whose operatives carry out the CIA's dirtiest business without question. When Weaver is ordered to kill an apparently innocent 16 year old girl, he starts to question his job and tries to uncover why the girl has to die.
Putting aside its lack of originality for a moment, The Nearest Exit is not always an easy book to read thanks to a few odd stylistic flourishes. I spent much of the time with only the vaguest of ideas what was going on. Steinhauer has a tendency to chop and change the timeline of his narrative, moving backwards or forwards in time seemingly at random. Or he will spend a lot of time focussing on one character before suddenly (and without warning) shifting attention to another character that, up until that point, has been little more than a bit part player.
There are times when this works well enough and other times when it's not quite so satisfying. The opening chapters, for example, introduce you to (apparently) the main character; yet within a few short pages, that person has been hospitalised and is then marginalised for much of the book. Similarly, Steinhauer takes you through a whole sequence of events (taking around 200 pages to do it) and then abruptly and without warning, backtracks to show the same events from the perspective of other characters. These sudden actually work quite well, piquing your interest as to what is going on, or providing a different perspective.
Elsewhere things are not quite so rosy. Although at heart, Steinhauer's plot is actually quite simple, he throws in so many complications, so many twists, turns and potential red herrings that it can become a little tricky to keep everything straight in your head. It's never good when you feel all at sea with a book and, whilst it is ultimately satisfying as you start to see everything coming together, the book spends too long getting there, so it becomes a bit of a chore to read.
This isn't helped by the fact that virtually all of the characters are rather unlikeable. It's understandable given the murky world of espionage that most of the characters are damaged goods and capable of nastiness and brutality of the highest order. However, just because they are ruthless doesn't mean that they can't also be likeable. The world of literature and films are full of examples of anti-heroes the reader/viewer can root for, even when they know what they are capable of - look at Bond or Bourne. Sadly, all the characters in The Nearest Exit are rather cold fish and difficult to warm to. Whilst Steinhauer attempts to humanise Weaver by giving him a wife and child, you never really believe that he gives two hoots about them, so this rather backfires.
There are a few typographical annoyances too, including several which really should have been picked up at the proof-reading stage. I came across a couple of paragraphs where the last line of one paragraph had somehow had the first line of the next paragraph appended to it so that they didn't make any sense and had to be read twice before you realised what had happened.
More serious was the bizarre use of hyphenated words in random places. Hyphenated words split over two lines are common practice and doesn't normally bother me. However, The Near-est Exit is full of exam-ples where words sudden-ly have a hypen in-serted in the mid-dle of them f-or no rea-son at all. See how annoying that last sentence was to read? OK, I'm exaggerating the extent to which it happens, but it's incredibly annoying. I suspect it's something that's gone a bit awry in the conversion from print to Kindle edition, but it really should have been cleaned up before the Kindle version was released. It got to the point where it was happening so frequently that it was actually impinging on my enjoyment of the book.
The biggest issue with The Nearest Exit, though, has already been hinted at: it doesn't offer anything new. Shady governments, double-crossing spies, rogue agents, murders committed for the greater political good and the nasty tricks of the world of espionage are now so commonplace in books that you really need to do something different with them to make them stand out from the crowd.
The Nearest Exit never comes close. It's not that it's necessarily a bad book; it's just an unsurprising and uninspiring one. I desperately wanted Steinhauer to pull some narrative trick to surprise me; to pull the rug out from under my feet with a dramatic flourish that left me wowed by his sleight of hand and mastery of misdirection. It never happened. Everything you would expect to happen in a book like this happens and that makes it ever so slightly dull and predictable.
There's really no need to buy or read this book because, in effect, you've already read it if you have read other political thrillers. The names and setting might change, but the underlying elements are exactly the same as other espionage thrillers.
The paperback edition of this book can be bought for just under £5 (new) or £3 (second hand), with the Kindle version around £3.50. To be honest, it's one of those books that if you find for a pound just about justifies taking a punt on it; but any more than that would be a bit of a waste. Put simply, The Nearest Exit is damned by its own mediocrity.
The Nearest Exit
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012