Review: The Middleman by Olen Steinhauer

“Some might say that caring about a handful of lives is the definition of civilization.”

9781250036179The Middleman is a timely political thriller that poses some tough questions without offering easy answers. Special Agent Rachel Proulx had sounded the first warning bells when she picked up on the potential issues with a left-wing group called Massive Brigade. When it seems Massive Brigade is actively engaged in civil disruption and ready to commit acts of terrorism she leads an FBI manhunt for the group’s leaders. Steinhauer’s engaging style, believable characters and intense story will have readers turning the pages and seeking answers to the very end.

While the first part of the book is set up as a clear FBI investigation, with insights from characters involved with the group woven in through alternating narratives with Steinhauer’s FBI protagonist, that really is just one part of the story. The Middleman is a story in two parts, with the first part emphasizing the hunt.

The second part focuses on the hunted.

It would risk spoilers to say too much more than that. While there was a fair bit in the investigative side that readers may be able to piece together, the ‘who’ isn’t always the most pertinent factor. Sometimes it’s the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ that are significant, and no matter what I suspected as a I read, surprises were in store. Everything was not as it seemed.

In an era with growing distrust in politicians, political institutions and law enforcement, The Middleman casts a harsh light on racial tensions in America, the willingness of government agencies to lie for their own benefit and how law enforcement plays politics with people’s lives. There are questions here worth considering, and as people take to the streets in increasing numbers to protest in real life, reality is mirrored by some of the events in The Middleman. There’s a lot here that will resonate with readers.

The fact that it feels all too real is a credit to the writer but that also means this isn’t escapist fiction. There are no easy answers and there’s no magic wand that rights the world and restores faith in the institutions that society has created. Perhaps some will look to the characters that do give us hope there are good people in the world and find comfort. Others may focus on the systemic corruption and whether it’s possible to really change things.