A Real Page Turner

Title: All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer
Publisher: Minotaur Books, Macmillan (March 10, 2015)
303 pp
Genre: espionage, mystery, spy novel, thriller, intrigue, political thriller
4 Stars ****
Author: Olen Steinhauer is an award winning American author of espionage fiction. His Milo Weaver trilogy (The Tourist (2009), Nearest Exit (2010) and An American Spy (2012)) were NYTimes best sellers and among my favourite spy novels. The Tourist has been optioned by George Clooney, which raised his profile and increased his readership. His first novel, Bridge of Sighs, (2007) was nominated for many awards, and continues to be an excellent place to start his works (it’s also a series, aka Ruthenia or Yalta Boulevard). I get excited with each new publication, and make time to read these, generally in one sitting. How can you wait for the denouement? His addictive writing and characters are engaging and complex. The books are well crafted with multilayered plots. Interestingly, this novel had its origins in another literary work, a narrative poem by Christopher Reid called The Song of Lunch, a BBC Masterpiece production Steinhauer saw in 2010 (starring Emma Thompson and Alan Reichman. I want them to appear in this book/movie!).
He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. All the Old Knives is his 9th novel and a stand alone. His interviews are also fascinating. “A writer should write the book he would want to read.” “The real pleasure of reviewing has been discovering new voices.” And “If a writer’s central subject is human nature than politics is beside the point.”
Story line:
This is an unusual spy thriller in that all the action takes place over dinner in Carmel, CA. Flashbacks slowly reveal multiple suspects and unreliable memories. The story is complicated by betrayal and guilt of ex lovers, not just ex CIA field officers. Many glasses of wine, exquisite food do not blunt the deception, betrayals, loss of trust and the complicated, complex, manipulating world of spies.
We know Muslim terrorists blew up a plane in Vienna 6 years ago, killing everyone. This also ended the relationship between two agents Celia Harrison and Henry Pelham. She left the service and lives a very different life (wife of a GM executive Drew Favreau, campaigning for Romney). Henry is still looking for the mole responsible for the disastrous day that changed his life, assigned to the European Desk. The story and the people evolve, but they are caught in the past. Their voices narrate different chapters expressing disparate views, each are master manipulators, to each other and the reader. I had a hard time liking either character, in this all too real novel. (And still think he should have been called Harry, but why?!) There is no black and white in the world.
This is still an intense, taut, quick read. Where the ending makes you rethink everything. The finale was not unexpected, with foreshadowing and subtle, well placed clues. Who did you believe? Would you survive the night? You might have to reread it. I can’t.
This is a good introduction to his work and you will find yourself drawn into his European theatre.
Read on:
Alan Furst, John LeCarre, Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, Joseph Conrad
If you like Charles McCarry’s The Miernik Dossier
Watch:
MI5 or Spooks and The Song of Lunch
Quotes:
Another day, another delay.
I keep my phone locked away, after 15 hours flying 6000 miles, then suffering through the mass psychosis of American passport control, the precise time of my arrival feels unimportant.
Besides never having to look her in the eyes would certainly make my job, and my life, a lot easier.
Perhaps strangers are our best friends.
I’ve known him my whole Austrian decade and he uses sighs the way others crack knuckles or chain smoke.
I’m entirely air-conditioned now.
Romantic love is cute. Passion is just a little game.

Read as an ARC from NetGalley

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