Olen Steinhauer's been getting a lot of praise for his new novel The Tourist, so I decided to give him a try. But I'm not going to blind-buy a hardcover novel, so I opted for one of his older and cheaper works: Liberation Movements.
This is a story about Armenian terrorists blowing up a plane en route to Turkey, and the police investigation at the departure point. Fairly standard stuff, except that the police are state security officers in an Eastern European Ruritania during the Cold War.
The police learn that the terrorists had simply intended on hijacking the plane and making demands, but something spooked them into detonating their bombs. Then the police become interested in one passenger in particular, a woman who had been held in a mental institution until a few weeks before. But when they try to find the hospital, they discover it doesn't exist. This in turn leads to a startling discovery -- the "hospital" was a front for a counter-intelligence operation.
You see, the "patients" at the hospital were all supposed psychics, and the security service had leaked to the Western powers that the staff had made extraordinary breakthroughs in harnessing telepathic powers. This was enough to lure spy after spy to the facility, where the security service murdered them. Steinhauer's obviously been listening to too much Coast-to-Coast AM -- whatever experiments the CIA did with psychics, it was never given high priority, and the idea that they'd risk numerous agents to infiltrate the East Bloc equivalent is far fetched. But we're still within the realm of possibility.
And then comes the big twist -- the girl on the plane was really psychic. She had the power to, like, tap into the cosmic-all, man, and see the connections around us. Synchronicity, dude, synchronicity -- like when you're thinking about a plate o' shrimp, and then someone says "plate" or "shrimp." Or "plate o' shrimp". And, like, she used this power to extrapolate the future, so she knew the terrorists would hijack the plane, and she knew what she had to ensure everything ended peacefully.
Except it didn't quite work out that way -- the puny human mind isn't capable of comprehending the allness of the cosmos, and it only took one overlooked fact for events to spin out of her control.
This twist came late enough in the book that I finished it instead of hurling it against the wall -- but it was a close call. This sort of last-minute genre-bending twist is very angry-making. I've read numerous fantasy, horror, and science fiction novels with similar plot elements, but in those cases the authors tell you up front, "This isn't a book set in the mundane world. Crank your suspension of disbelief to 11." I'm fine with that. But when a writer grounds the story firmly in reality and then reveals in the last chapter, "By the way, this is actually a fantasy," it ruins the whole thing.
But there's a subtler problem -- the way Steinhauer presents the twist, you get the sense that he doesn't see it as a violation of reality. It's like the difference between The Dead Zone and The Ghost Whisperer, or the Illuminatus! and The Da Vinci Code -- one is written by people who know they're spinning a yarn, while the other feels like the writers believe the premise. This adds an earnestness to the story that undermines my suspension of disbelief.
I know Steinhauer isn't the first author to do something like this, but I'm blanking on other examples. There are tons of TV shows as examples, but what about literature?
 This is apparently the hot new genre in mysteries and political thrillers. Steinhauer's written five novels in this setting, and Tom Rob Smith has two mysteries set in the Soviet Union of the 1950s.