One of The Boston Globe’s Best Mysteries of the Year
“A thought-provoking political thriller, a dark story for dark times.” – The Washington Post
With The Middleman, the perfect thriller for our tumultuous, uneasy time, Olen Steinhauer, the New York Times bestselling author of ten novels, including The Tourist and The Cairo Affair, delivers a compelling portrait of a nation on the edge of revolution, and the deepest motives of the men and women on the opposite sides of the divide.
One day in the early summer of 2017, about four hundred people disappear from their lives. They leave behind cell phones, credit cards, jobs, houses, families--everything--all on the same day. Where have they gone? Why? The only answer, for weeks, is silence.
Kevin Moore is one of them. Former military, disaffected, restless, Kevin leaves behind his retail job in San Francisco, sends a good-bye text to his mother, dumps his phone and wallet into a trash can, and disappears.
The movement calls itself the Massive Brigade, and they believe change isn't coming fast enough to America. But are they a protest organization, a political movement, or a terrorist group? What do they want? The FBI isn't taking any chances. Special Agent Rachel Proulx has been following the growth of left-wing political groups in the U.S. since the fall of 2016, and is very familiar with Martin Bishop, the charismatic leader of the Massive Brigade. But she needs her colleagues to take her seriously in order to find these people before they put their plan--whatever it is--into action.
What Rachel uncovers will shock the entire nation, and the aftermath of her investigation will reverberate through the FBI to the highest levels of government.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)|
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KEVIN MOORE leaned against the counter at Sushi Taka. He counted the rings in his spicy tuna roll — one, two, three — thinking of architecture. Then he went about the ritual: the trimming of the chopsticks, the laying on of ginger, the measured smear of wasabi. The flavor was appealing, but nothing special, not to his palate, yet he had eaten so much of this food since moving to the West Coast a year ago that by now the ritual was second nature. The joy he took in eating sushi was one of form and not content; this realization felt like something important.
He shifted his gaze to the window in front of him — watching, like always. A few minutes ago, he'd seen a homeless guy urinate against the bland office building across the street, turning to face the wall as if by this show of modesty no one would notice. But San Francisco residents had seen far worse — hadn't everyone? — so no one bothered him. By the time Kevin's phone vibrated beside the tray, number unknown, the homeless guy was long gone, and there was nothing to interrupt the steady Sunday trickle of tourists, vagrants, and hookers.
"Hello?" he said into the phone.
"Time to go, George," said a male voice.
The office building blurred. "Really?"
"Now," the caller said, then hung up.
Kevin blinked until his sight cleared, the hazy distance coming into focus again. He wasn't scared, not really, because he'd been waiting weeks for this moment. Each morning, walking to the Office Depot in the Potrero Center where he stocked shelves and tried to be patient with customers, he'd carried in him the weight of knowing that this could be the day. It had never been, though, and after a while he'd begun to wonder if the day would ever come. Maybe Jasmine and Aaron had been full of hot air, posers in a city of posers, and all his time here would turn out to be a waste. And now ...
No, not fear. Anxiety, yes, but not fear.
He lifted his phone again and scrolled through contacts: MOM. He typed, Off on trip with friends, let you know when I get back. xx. Send. Then he took out his wallet and removed his MasterCard, the Virginia driver's license he'd never gotten around to changing, and even his library card, but he held on to his debit card. He brought everything to the trashcan and dropped in his soiled plate, the empty cup of miso soup, the cards, and his phone. As they disappeared into the darkness, an involuntary sigh escaped him. Though he knew better, he'd grown attached to the phone that had been pieced together in some Chinese sweatshop. The truth was that Kevin Moore loved the modern world even when he loathed it.
The trashcan lid snapped shut. It was accomplished.
He walked casually over to traffic-clogged Montgomery and south toward Market, past the grand columns of US Bank, and at the ATM emptied his account of $580. He pocketed the cash, then found a trashcan at the corner of Pine. Good-bye, cruel world — in went the debit card. He looked around, wondering if anyone had spotted his madness, but no one stared. Like a man pissing on a wall, people had probably seen this sort of thing before. They'd seen worse.
What was unexpected, though, was the feeling of lightness that overcame him. The anxiety fell away as he walked deeper into his day. A phone and a bunch of cards. So simple. Yet with a few deft moves he'd become unmoored. Who, now, was to say his name wasn't George? Who could say if he was a rich man or a poor one? Who, really, could say what he was? I'm a NASA scientist, he could say. Or: I'm a cop. The only thing he wasn't allowed to say was I'm a revolutionary seeking to bury all this modern sublimity.
At Market he joined the crowd heading down into the BART station to catch the 2:14 for Pittsburg/Bay Point. He reached the platform just in time to face the wind of the gray-hulled train before it emerged from the darkness. Despite the gusts, he was sweating, while around him people stared at little screens in their hands. Any other day, he would have been doing the same thing. One of the well-washed masses. His dizziness returned. It was the light-headedness, he understood now, of abandon. There wasn't much air up here.
He searched for a seat, but there were none available until Orinda, where he settled next to an old woman reading the Bible. He peered over her shoulder — she was somewhere in Leviticus — and when she noticed him he apologized. "Are you a reader?" she asked.
"Been a while," he said, which was true enough.
She smiled a beautiful smile and offered the Bible to him. "I got plenty of 'em."
He tried to refuse, but her insistence was so full of earnest generosity that he gave in and carried it as his only luggage when he left at Walnut Creek. He waited until the train left again before dropping it, too, into a trashcan and trotting down the stairs to reach the underpass. He leaned against a wall and untied his left sneaker, then took it off. Holding it in his hand, he walked out into the sunlight, a slight limp from his unbalanced stride, hardly even feeling ridiculous. He waited at the curb, watching. Cars came and went, but he tried not to look expectant. He used his eyes clandestinely, checking windshields, and peered beyond to the expansive BART parking lot.
He'd been told so little. Take off your left shoe and wait. Maybe Aaron would show up. Or Mother would pull up and tell him to call it a day. Anything, really, felt possible.
He guessed that fifteen minutes passed before an old GTO — must've been midsixties — pulled up. A rangy-looking white man of indeterminate age leaned across the passenger seat and cranked down the window.
Kevin said, "That you, George?"
A rough voice: "Get in."
Kevin opened the door and settled into the stink of cigarettes and fried food. George put the car into drive, and they moved slowly forward. As they exited the parking lot and continued onto Oakland Boulevard, Kevin put his shoe back on and tied it up. "So," he said. "Where to?"
"How about you let me worry about that?"CHAPTER 2
ON THE opposite end of America, in New Jersey, a party was under way. Bill Ferris, the host, guessed he didn't know a quarter of the partygoers; and most of those partygoers didn't know that they were here to celebrate his retirement from the world of entertainment law. Some were confused by the fact that this was Father's Day, and even wished their childless host a happy one, while others — neighbors, mostly — had come solely for the free booze. Not that this bothered him. He and Gina were social creatures; they had spent decades gathering around themselves a menagerie of artists, actors, gurus, and agitators of a smorgasbord of races because this was what they most enjoyed witnessing: the descendants of Trotsky engaging one another on neutral ground.
Children were safely jailed inside a screened trampoline, while the sharp aroma of skunkweed came and went along with snatches of conversation: rising unemployment in the heartland, the latest corporate mergers, the recent acquittal of a Newark cop who'd shot and killed a black man in front of his wife and daughter, a congressional money-laundering investigation into Oklahoma City's Plains Capital Bank and Frankfurt's IfW, or Investition für Wirtschaft, and, as ever, POTUS #45. A voice on the warm breeze: "Fuck this, man. I'm moving to Canada."
When David and Ingrid Parker arrived, Bill was on the front porch, signing for an emergency half keg of Shiner Bock. He kissed Ingrid's permanently flushed cheeks and asked after her health — she'd just crossed into her second trimester. "The food's staying down," she said, pushing back the long walnut hair that she'd been growing out for a year; once it was long enough she was going to donate it to make wigs for cancer patients. "What've you got to eat?"
"Everything," he assured her.
Bill had met the Parkers ten years before, back in 2007, during a month-long stay in Berlin to negotiate the minutiae of a studio buyout, and they had remained friends ever since. Ingrid had been writing grants for the Starling Trust, while David had wallowed in the dissolute life of an expat novelist. His debut, Gray Snow, a story of concentration camp survivors making their way home to Yugoslavia through the apocalyptic landscape of postwar Europe, had garnered impressive reviews back home, and by the time Bill met him he was working furiously on his follow-up, Red Rain.
David's audience had been small, but he was living the romantic exile's life, which, until 2009, was enough for him. Early that year a terrorist bomb went off in an apartment building as David was passing on the street, and his brush with mortality changed everything; all he wanted now was success. The first step was to move back to Manhattan, to the nexus of American publishing, where all doors would be open to him. At first Ingrid resisted, but David eventually wore her down. She got a transfer to the Starling Trust's New York headquarters, and they moved into an Upper East Side rental, where David spent his days hunched over a laptop, putting everything he had into his masterpiece. He was poised for success.
Which was why, after five years of hard work, he was dumbfounded when his editor unceremoniously rejected all eight hundred pages of Balkan America. Then Ingrid learned she was pregnant, and money became an issue. Her salary just covered their exorbitant rent, and as they ate their way through their savings they tried in vain to plan for the expenses of parenthood.
In the backyard, David stationed himself beside Bill, who was keeping an eye on some Kobe steaks. Though the rest of the party was being catered, Bill had insisted on manning the grill. They gazed down the arc of the yard to the trampoline, where a hired clown had just arrived to terrify the children of the Left, and Bill opened up about a fight he and Gina had been waging. "She wants to move south. Florida. Just contemplating a life in that cultural wasteland makes me sick."
David gave him an appreciative smile, but his mind was clearly elsewhere.
"What about you and Ingrid?" Bill asked.
The smile faded. "She's giving me a month."
"To start pulling my weight."
"You still have savings, don't you?"
"We've eaten up too much."
Bill didn't say anything.
"Teaching," David said.
David drank again, looking out at the busy backyard. "Maybe we should just throw in the towel and move back to Berlin. Every time we turn on the news we talk about it. This country's a mess."
"Don't watch the news, then."
"Ingrid doesn't watch anything else," he said. "You know where she was after the last election? In the streets, marching around with her NOT MY PRESIDENT sign in front of Trump Tower. Screaming like a banshee. Then last week? Ran off to Newark to protest that Jersey cop who killed that guy ... what's-his-name."
A shrug. "She came back filthy. I think there was blood in her hair."
"She wasn't the only one protesting," said Bill.
"Did you go?"
Bill shook his head.
"My point exactly. You and me — we're grown-ups."
Bill checked the steaks. While he wasn't looking, they had burned.CHAPTER 3
FIVE MONTHS ago, Kevin had first been invited inside after a meeting in an Oakland loft of the uninspiringly named West Coast Anarchists (WCA). A Swede named Olaf who wore a bow tie as an act of radical irony had been discussing Martin Bishop's latest diatribe, posted on The Propaganda Ministry, on "the pharmaceutical mafia." There were about fifteen in attendance, none older than thirty, and when a med student from UCSF tried to explain the economics inherent in drug companies' research and development, and their impact on prices, Kevin cut in with "You sound like a corporate shill. Since when is medicine supposed to be a profit industry? Make a profit on cars, sure, or toys, but hospitals and drugs, the internet and basic foodstuffs — anything that's necessary for living? That ain't business. It's a human right."
The med student, not used to being interrupted, had been irritated. "Then move off to a farm and grow your own fucking food."
"There's only twenty-four hours in a day, man, and this late in history I don't think we should all have to move back to the seventeenth century. Is that the promise of capitalism?"
He'd surprised himself with his outburst, and a few others looked surprised as well that the skinny black guy who'd sat silently through so many meetings suddenly had a bone to pick. Afterward, Jasmine — twenty-six, a performance artist — asked him out for a drink. "You're right, you know. He is a shill, and so are half of them. I'm even starting to suspect Olaf is a spy."
"Spy?" he asked, trying to appear sufficiently shocked. "For the Feds?"
"Because a few millennials in a loft doesn't mean shit to them. They're looking for Russian hackers and ISIS bombers."
"Maybe," said Jasmine. "But if that's the case, they're missing out on something big, and they'll be kicking themselves later."
"Something big? Not the WCA."
"I'm not talking about those guys."
She smiled and raised her beer. "To the Revolution, Kevin. It's gonna be massive."
Aaron came along later, Jasmine introducing him at Aunt Charlie's Lounge before the drag show got under way. Aaron shook his hand cursorily, then deposited the newest issue of Rolling Stone on the bar and opened it to a full-page profile called "The Revolution's New Face." Though not entirely flattering, it was a revealing piece, chronicling the life of Martin Bishop, the thirty-seven-year-old from Tennessee whose youthful Baptist fervor had reinvented itself in the shape of social justice. He and his co-revolutionary, a Pennsylvania thug named Benjamin Mittag, first made a name for themselves among the progressives of Austin, Texas. A blog (The Propaganda Ministry — www.propagandaministry.com) with an enormous following led to a Kickstarter-funded tour of campuses around the country, "speaking truth to power." His followers called themselves the Massive Brigade.
In crowded auditoriums, Bishop held forth with religious intensity, and was compared by some to Martin Luther King Jr., though more often he quoted Thomas Jefferson's personal seal: "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." The power elite, he told audiences, had built up its defenses and become so distanced from the 99 percent that it barely noticed the whimpers of those who challenged it with sit-ins and marches and T-shirts and pop songs. The elite saw nothing to fear.
"Who, then, are they afraid of?" he asked auditoriums, then pointed at the people who were hit hard by lawsuits and jail time: the chaos-makers. Hackers, whistle-blowers, and the angry mobs that actually destroyed property. "Look to Seattle! Look to Ruby Ridge! Look to the Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge!" he soliloquized to a crowd in St. Louis. Whoever opened up the ruling class to examination by the masses, whoever exposed the illusion of their authority — those were the ones who forced power to reveal its true face: riot police and big lawyers.
He asked the students of NYU, "Is everyone blind? The police are gunning down our black brothers and sisters! The prison-industrial complex fills our jails with the cheapest labor around, for the benefit of McDonald's and Wendy's, Walmart and Victoria's Secret. Our modern-day slaves man call centers for Verizon and Sprint. For ninety cents a day! And if you're on the outside, don't think you're off the hook. Banks steal your homes at the first opportunity. Oil companies send your kids into the desert to die for their profits! Have I got something wrong here?"
The crowd came back, as one, "No!"
"If it looks like war and smells like war, what is it?"
After the St. Louis meeting broke up, thirty pumped-up Massive Brigade followers smashed their way into a Citibank branch and trashed the lobby before the police rounded them up. That was when the charge of terrorism was first raised against Martin Bishop — if not by the authorities, then by the court of public opinion and his most vocal critic on television, Sam Schumer. Every day, Facebook delivered another salacious bit of news — sometimes fake, sometimes not — about Bishop and his followers. The Massive Brigade was synonymous with "the coming unrest."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Middleman"
Copyright © 2018 Third State, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
From the very first paragraph of The Middleman, I was hooked! This is a book that you should not begin reading unless you have time to read it all - at once - without stopping. It is an "unputdownable" page turning thriller! Generally I don't read books about the US government, FBI or CIA any longer. The truth in the world is too terrible and I don't like to see espionage glorified. However, the promise of a book that didn't sway too far one way or the other politically that also offered up "conspiracy theories," the FBI's role in the protests, a "new revolution" and more was so current and on point that I had to take a look. I am so glad that I did. This book had my attention from beginning to end with absolutely no lag time in between! Olen Steinhauer, the best selling author of The Cairo Affair and many other thrillers, knows how to weave together a tale of espionage, current events and human emotion. There was enough technical "feeb" talk to give the book authenticity without ever crossing the line into boring or eye-rolling scenarios. His perception of current and global events is remarkable and so spot on that I expected to log into my news feed and read about this incident in real time - the realism of this novel is chillingly accurate! The premise is that America is on the brink of a revolution and the FBI is either a step behind the revolutionaries or has infiltrated the group (read the book to know for sure, no spoilers here.) When hundreds of people literally vanish from their lives leaving behind everything and everyone they cared about, Special Agent Rachel Prouix is tasked with finding the missing and the leaders of this massive revolutionary band of insurgents. What she discovers will shock both her and you and leave you scrambling to read faster toward the end of the book! If you enjoy thrillers, police procedurals, suspense, espionage or just a really well written exciting storyline, then you will love this book. I highly recommend it!
Really loved his other books but this one was AWFUL. Complete waste of time and money. Don't bother. R. Davis
Admittedly not my favorite and read over the course of a reading drought. Current events, spy theme with corruption and terrorism plot centered upon a diluted spectrum of right versus wrong. All the makings, but fell short of character connections, and enthusiastic plot.
The Middleman By Olen Steinhauer Minotaur Books August 7, 2018 Hardcover, 368 pp., $26.99A$ ISBN 978-0-2500-3617-9 Reviewed by Theodore Feit A thriller wrapped in a mystery which cannot make up its mind where it is going, or even coming from. At the heart of the plot, Special Agent Rachel Proulx of the FBI is studying and preparing a report on terrorist groups. Consequently, she spearheads the FBI’s efforts to monitor a group whose leader does not favor active terrorism, but cerebral efforts to change society. The FBI plants an undercover agent in the group and he is forced to act as a sniper on July 4, 2017, shooting a Congresswoman spearheading an investigation into a couple of financial institutions, Three other members of Congress are killed, although the Congresswoman is only shot in the neck and survives. One of the other three is also a leader in the investigation of the financial companies. So much for peaceful demonstrations, and the group is now classified as a terrorist organization. What remains is for Rachel and the undercover agent to team up and try to find out what really took place along the way and discover the answers to unexplained questions and events, making these attempts while outcasts from their own FBI. While the novel is constructed to move along and keep the reader interested, it is buried in obscurity and sometimes difficult to follow. For the most part, the story meanders back and forth, past to present, adding little to forward movement. It really is a tale of conspiracies compounded by double-crosses, but not a bad read, and is recommended.
I enjoyed this thrill ride of a book to the max! This book is current, edgy, precise, scary, and told in a grabbing manner. I love the various perspectives of the speakers. They all have a story to tell, and their stories are all important. It was action-packed from the beginning and did not let up. Discoveries were made from beginning to end. Kept me riveted. I related to many of the characters in a substantial way. What shone through to me in all of it, was the fact that we are all humans. Regardless of beliefs, when push comes to shove, there are common factors. A fascinating read and one I'm sure any spy, mystery, thriller, political thriller readers will love. This book was provided to me by NetGalley and the publisher.
“The Middleman” by Olen Steinhauer follows Kevin Moore, a retail worker with a military past, who is one of the four hundred people to disappear—leaving behind everything, including his job, cell phone, and IDs. He is a member of the Massive Brigade—a mysterious organization led by Martin Bishop, who aims to rebel against the current state of society. Soon, politicians start getting killed off. While Moore is travelling with his fellow Brigade members, Special Agent Rachel Proulx is investigating the organization. The FBI has an infiltrator there, who is reporting on the Massive Brigade’s every move, Meanwhile, Martin becomes involved with Ingrid, a pregnant wife who leaves her husband to join him in his movement—just as the FBI is growing closer and closer to shutting the whole thing off. Then the hunter becomes the hunted. For me, what stood out in this thriller is its setting, which fully reflects modern-day America, starting from the political divisiveness that’s been in place since the last election, to the street protests, police shootings, and even international meddling. Nothing is ever straightforward, and there are constantly several agendas going on simultaneously, battling each other out. Overall, a thoughtful thriller that has a very realistic ring to it.
The Middleman by Olen Steinhauer is a highly recommended political thriller. One day in 2017 four hundred people disappear, leaving behind everything, all ID, cell phones, family, jobs, and friends. The group is a part of the Massive Brigade, led by social justice warrior Martin Bishop and Ben Mittag, and their first coordinated act is this complete disappearance and silence. The FBI assigns Special Agent Rachel Proulx to follow the group since she has been keeping track of Martin Bishop as well as left-wing political groups, since 2016. FBI agent, Kevin Moore, is undercover with the Brigade, and has an insider's view of their actions. Between Kevin and Rachel the reader can follow what happens. When the actions taken by the Brigade on July 4th set off a string of events, it seemingly results in the success of the FBI's handling of the incidents and the group, but both Kevin and Rachel know more information than the public. The two end up privately working together to uncover the inside information being kept from the public. This is a timely thriller with an alternate history timeline that should resonate with many readers who should be able to draw some comparisons to current political/social events. The plot and information is complicated and there is much more going on than you will have answers for until much later in the novel. I appreciated the role the media played in the novel - both being manipulated to create public opinion and making the news follow their ideological slant. While Rachel and Kevin are both likeable characters, some of the rest of the characters seem less finely drawn. The ultimate cause the brigade is publicly denouncing doesn't quite take on the menace and evil that it should, given the acts carried out by the group and the seriousness of the uncovered information. The Middleman is entertaining and engrossing thriller. Steinhauer knows how to create a complicated plot, add in a timely political climate, and slowly allow points to be revealed along the way to the conclusion. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of St. Martin's Press via Netgalley.
Opening an Olen Steinhauer book is what I imagine opening a Tiffany’s gift box would be like, with joy, anticipation, and the smug satisfaction of being one of a lucky ones. Lucky comes because Steinhauer is too unknown. Maybe his TV show-Berlin Station will bring him the readership he deserves. The Middleman returns Steinhauer, in spirit only, to the original stomping grounds of his police procedurals in an unnamed communist country. In those books, terror is mostly a product of the state, as is media control. There are also tiny pockets of resistance, sometimes only by individuals. In The Middleman the country is the United States, not some unnamed communist country. Also, this is not in some dystopian future, this is now. One day, four hundred people walk away from their lives. The FBI knows a bit about the Massive Brigade, the group these people are joining. As the FBI does with many groups, even those not considered to be a threat, it has assigned S/A Rachel Proulx to monitor the group. With the disappearances, Proulx is suddenly given a much larger budget, a larger office and more people to work with. The Massive Brigade could be hot stuff! The end of the world as we know it, as certain media commentators would have us believe. Maybe The Massive Brigade is hot stuff, because the world is most certainly changing and maybe the four hundred people of The Massive Brigade are enough to hold back the tide and make their own changes. Steinhauer is masterful in portraying “the what ares” and “the what ifs.” Told by four major POV’s, The Middleman explores the motivations and the growth of those characters, including us on their journeys. The journeys sets the four antagonists on their separate dangerous paths, bringing them together at various times in surprising ways. They are all pawns in a fascinating, topsy-turvy world, pawns just not in the United States but in Europe too. Here is where I am disappointed, the diamond in my Tiffany box doesn’t fit, too large, maybe? The ending is just too convoluted. I had to read it twice, and even then I had questions. As a gift to Sheinhauer’s fans a character from a couple other books shows up to explain his role as a sort of deux ex machina.
I enjoyed this book even though the plot wasn't very believable and the twists weren't as surprising as I'd have wished. Good character development and well paced.
Intricate, fast-paced, and astute! The Middleman, the latest novel by Steinhauer, is an intriguing political thriller that takes you into the heart of American politics and immerses you in a story of left-wing ideology and the struggle to maintain morality and induce change without force in a world motivated by violence. The prose is descriptive and well paced. The characters are passionate, resourceful, and determined. And the plot is an engaging tale about greed, power, deception, abuse, violence, manipulation, murder, and corruption. Overall, The Middleman is a dark, timely, pensive tale that explores the fine line between good and evil, and highlights just how easily that line can become blurry.