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Was the matter you? Why the long face? I'll tell you exactly what is wrong with me; my name is Midge Ure and my seminal 80s hit song 'Vienna' has failed to get to number one because of an irritating novelty song about an aggressive Italian - so shaddap you face! The fury that must have risen in the members of Ultravox as they spent 4 weeks at number 2, but never managed to get to number 1 must have been immense. Surely there is enough here to write a book? Perhaps there is, but you will not find this story in Olen Steinhauer's 'The Vienna Assignment'. Instead you will get a book about the Cold War during the early 60s and the bleak mistreatment of their own people by the member states of the Soviet Union. Could this mean something to me - ahhh Vienna Assignment.
The Soviet Union was fuelled by ambition and fear and Brano Sev is a patriot who buys into this whole heartedly. He is a committed Communist who spies for his country in the city of Vienna. However, his loyalty is not repaid when he is framed for the murder of another undercover agent. Fleeing back to the East he is given one last chance to clear his name by returning to the backwards village he grew up in and spying on a man that means to defect. With false allegations of treason and murder hanging over his head can Sev remain committed to his Communist ideals or will be drawn to flee with the man he has been sent to investigate?
As a reader from the West I have read my fair share of spy novels based around Americans and UK citizens. These spy books tend to be boys own adventures with lots of guns and men shouting at each other in surnames. What you do not get in these books is an authentic feel of how the Eastern spy networks ran. Steinhauer seeks to resolve this by using Brano Sev a committed man from the East. The book does paint a vivid and depressing view of the East during the Cold War as the people were more in fear of their own leaders than the West. Steinhauer makes the book work by making Sev a fanatic for the cause and therefore part of the problem. Wherever Sev goes he is mistrusted and disliked. This gave the book a darker and more interesting edge; more melodrama than thriller.
The spy networks of the 60s seemed to run on a set of unwritten rules where various sides would follow one another in plain view. You were allowed to torture an enemy within reason, only to release them with a handshake and knowing nod. The everyday use of lying, spying and dying is really well created by Steinhauer and gives the book a very real feel as if this is what really did happen. Sev epitomises this as he does his job without question and knows what rules are to be obeyed and which to be ignored.
By half way I began to realise that the book was less about the Cold War as a whole and more about the plight of one man - Sev. Sev is pushed from pillar to post and each time he is beaten or tortured for information. The book turns into classic film noir as our hero is unable to see the true scope of the situation be finds himself in. However, like a lot of classic noir it falls into the trap of becoming too confused in its own twists and turns. I was unable to really understand what was going on by the end of the book as Steinhauer was not clear enough in making the central story come out. This meant that the book felt like it had a good grip on the time and environment, but was unable to actually provide a coherent story.
With a strange blend of spy fiction, crime noir and melodrama it is a little uncertain to know what type of reader would enjoy 'The Vienna Assignment'. I liked it more as a way of discovering the East during the Cold War and less for the actually story. The character of Brano Sev is refreshingly grumpy, but his poor attitude and blind loyalty will put many people off. Steinhauer's portrayal of the post Stalinist spy network is just enough to make the book worth reading; it is a shame that it becomes too complex towards the end. There are later books in the series that follow Sev's career that I plan to check out and hope that Steinhauer is able to create a narrative that is of the same quality as his ability to create a sense of time and place.
Author: Olen Steinhauer
Price: amazon uk - £9.49