Steinhauer’s new, unnerving espionage

All the Old Knives by Olen SteinhauerOlen Steinhauer is a New York Times best-selling author of spy novels. His newest book All the Old Knives got a mention here on TLC just a few weeks ago in a list of books coming out this spring. It’s all that the forecasts promised but a page-turner of a unique kind. It doesn’t grab you from the get-go, but hang on.

It begins with agent Henry Pelham from the CIA’s Vienna bureau traveling to meet retired agent Celia Favreau. They’re meeting for dinner in California’s idyllic Carmel-by-the-Sea where Celia is now married, with two children. Henry intends to interrogate her. He believes Celia might have helped the enemy in a past incident. Complicating the situation is the fact they are former lovers.

This is a concisely told story in a compact novel you could read in an afternoon – and you just might want to do that.  Steinhauer plays with our perception of the details in such a way that you may find yourself needing to revisit them if you don’t stick with the story all at once. While it starts slowly, this terrific spy novel builds with gradual tension and complexity.

At the heart of the drama is the hijacking of a Royal Jordanian airplane carrying 120 passengers and crew. It lands in Vienna with the hijackers refusing to negotiate. The crisis ends in complete disaster. Everyone on board the flight dies. Six years later, a terrorist picked up in Afghanistan claims a source inside the Vienna-based CIA helped the hijackers.  Henry believes that person was likely Celia – and if not her, then she probably knew who it was. She married quickly after the disaster – within 7 months – suspiciously abandoning the agency and Henry for a man she hardly knew.

In the present time, she’s moved on, but Henry hasn’t. His continued desire for Celia influences his intent to interrogate her. Through the dinner at the elegant Carmel restaurant, she appears stoic, at times tearful, but never wavering over the decision she made to cut free from Henry and their work to have a better life. She’s disarmingly earnest, but Henry wonders if she’s still the professional manipulator he once knew.

Both, however, are trained in manipulation. Both are less than trustworthy. Those attributes affected their romance, and it affects their interaction over their gourmet meal as the chronology of the hijacking events unfold. Steinhauer exceptionally works with alternating perceptions between Celia and Henry — and also the transcript from Henry’s secret recording of their conversation. It’s smart, sophisticated, espionage storytelling with the velocity ramping into high gear in the last third of the book. There’s a shocking surprise that’s unnerving, and so well done you won’t forget it.