In The Middleman, the latest nailbiter from Olen Steinhauer, protagonist Martin Bishop, the charismatic leader of a left-wing radical group known as The Massive Brigade, wants to force change in Donald Trump’s America. He enthralls a subset of frustrated Americans, presiding at rallies where he rails against the 1%, corporate ownership of Congress, wars fought for oil companies, and a system far removed from its original democratic intent.
Bishop believes disruption and surprise can rally the rest of the country to demand a fairer, more equitable system. He embraces the restorative power of revolution, but stops just short of endorsing violence. (Stockpiling weapons in safe houses is, apparently, okay.)
The FBI tracks Bishop’s group in hopes of preventing terrorism attacks.
On June 18, 2017, hundreds of young adults, most of them college students, suddenly disappear at the same time, motivated by an appeal from Massive Brigade. The call to action is cryptic, offering scant details of what may, or may not, follow.
Parents of the students turn frantic, trying to figure out why their children have dropped out of the world and where they might have gone. Without packing so much as a T-shirt, without their iPhones, without a note of explanation.
Nothing is heard from Bishop, the Massive Brigade or its followers for two weeks.
Then comes a series of attacks that stuns both Bishop and the FBI. On the Fourth of July, snipers assassinate three members of Congress and leave a fourth on life support with a gunshot wound to the neck. Online, a dormant Massive Brigade blog takes credit, asserting, “The time for analysis is over.”
The FBI starts a manhunt for Bishop, who, soon afterward, turns up dead in a field in rural Kansas, perhaps murdered by his top lieutenant in Massive Brigade.
All of which leaves Rachel Proulx, an FBI special agent and expert in left-wing movements, wondering why Bishop reversed course and risked the credibility of his movement by ordering the killings of members of Congress. Or did he? And, either way, who killed Bishop?
This being an Olen Steinhauer novel, those strands are only part of the story. Just as rivalries and resentments roil the leadership of Massive Brigade, so it goes at the FBI, too.
Proulx feels undercut by a colleague who seems to be taking contradictory orders from higher-ups. An undercover agent embedded with Massive Brigade has been seldom heard from – at least so far. Media reports keep creating new headaches in the investigation. And so on.
As for Rachel, she has watched Massive Brigade evolve over a number of years, first glimpsing Bishop in 2009, long before his magnetism and radicalism made him the subject of fawning magazine profiles.
Steinhauer sketches out Proulx’s initial impression of Bishop with flab-free prose typical of the novel.
“He was no older than thirty, and genetics had blessed him with a permanent tan and a face too pretty to be wasted in academia,” he writes. “He stood at the podium under the fluorescent lights, speaking in a faintly quivering voice to the half-full auditorium. … The crowd was a mix of American political types: aging hippies, rumpled economists, poli-sci students sporting adolescent mustaches, and punk rockers with dyed and shaved heads who chewed gum, the smacking sound carried by the perfect acoustics of the room.”
Soon after the assassinations and Bishop’s death, Proulx is demoted, the result of a meltdown over a disastrous, deadly FBI raid against Massive Brigade. Proulx questions motives and actions — and soon finds herself on the run. Not from left-wing radicals, but from the FBI.
Steinhauer juggles his plot lines in brisk, alternating chapters, accelerating the tension throughout. Along the way, he presents an of-the-moment backdrop, one that is sure to cause critics to include the word “zeitgeist” in plenty of reviews for “The Middleman.”
Examples include a conservative cable news pundit who seems to be ahead of the FBI and the rest of the government when it comes to revealing what’s happening in the government’s investigation. An FBI assistant director, just back from a meeting at the White House, reflects on the pressures of the job: "Less than two months ago, Director Comey had been dismissed by the president, so any visit to Pennsylvania Avenue was fraught.”
Loyal readers will be rewarded with an extended cameo from the star of Steinhauer’s "Tourist" trilogy, whose appearance turns out to be much more than a mere Easter egg.
An estranged suburban couple expecting their first child fills out the supporting cast. The husband is a spy fiction novelist whose career has stalled and the wife is a grant writer who joined New York protests after Trump was elected – and whose idealism is radicalized during a chance encounter with Bishop at a friend’s dinner party. It is the novelist whose imagination is overwhelmed by the events he witnesses while the idealist becomes a hard-bitten realist.
Steinhauer serves as an effective literary middleman throughout, connecting readers with plausible versions of how a diverse group of people – FBI agents, radicals, followers, bureaucrats, reporters hungry for a story – might respond to turmoil in a world of well-rendered verisimilitude.
Stir in a dash of corporate fraud and undue influence at the highest levels of government and you have what is sure to stand as one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking novels of the year.