Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Perils of Dinner in Olen Steinhauer’s All the Old Knives

The U.S. Embassy in Vienna, Austria.

In fiction, film and drama, dinner often becomes a cauldron for seething tensions and revelations of buried secrets. In the espionage thrillers of Olen Steinhauer, the author doubles down the possibility for something horrific to occur. In The Cairo Affair (Minotaur Books, 2014), one of the most dramatic scenes occurs early in the novel when, during the course of a dinner in Budapest, a diplomat husband confronts his wife about an affair that she had during their previous posting in Cairo. She confesses her infidelity and is about to explain when a professional hitman kills her husband, a death that drives her back to Cairo and into the murky world of intelligence as she searches for answers about why and who is responsible for the death of her husband. In Steinhauer’s subsequent and most recent novel, All the Old Knives (Minotaur Books, 2015), again a dinner, this time between two ex-lovers, one currently still a CIA agent and the other a former operative, sets up the possibility that could have fatal consequences for one or both of them.

At the outset, Henry Pelham is a seasoned agent on his way to Carmel-by-the-Sea to have dinner with Celia Favreau, née Harrison, his former colleague, who abruptly left the agency and their relationship six years previously to marry an older man after a brief courtship and begin a new life in California. Through the dinner conversations, interior monologues and flashbacks, Steinhauer presents their accounts in alternating first-person sections. Although their perceptions and memories overlap, they are by no means identical but we gradually are able to piece together what has happened before this occasion and what is transpiring during the dinner itself. Clearly, the airline hijacking at the Vienna Airport six years previously by militant Islamists has upended both their lives and is the lynchpin of the novel. Despite Celia’s apparent idyllic life with a loving husband and the mother of two small children, she is haunted by nightmares and Henry appears rootless and emotionally plagued by the unexpected ending of their relationship and by the highjacking incident both of which occurred almost simultaneously.

The catalyst for this dinner is the news that an informant at Guantanamo Bay has suggested that the agency’s response was compromised by a traitor within its ranks, a detail that is hinted at in the early pages and only becomes explicit later on. Nonetheless, the possibility of a mole in the embassy and a public prosecution is an embarrassment the Vienna station chief believes must be avoided at all costs. The implication is that when there is sufficient evidence the culprit must be eliminated. His boss has reservations about Henry being the right person to conduct that investigation and interview Celia, who is now regarded as a suspect, because he believes Henry still holds a torch for her. Henry convinces his superior that only he will be able to tell whether Celia is lying. We are alerted early on that this dinner will not be merely innocent reminiscences between two old flames. Is she the mole or is she protecting the traitor?

Although we are not informed about the details of the Vienna Airport hostage-taking incident until late into the novel, there are flashbacks that it turned out disastrously. One is the reference to the 2002 real-life Chechen Islamist siege of a Russian theatre that ended in tragedy when the Russians pumped gas into the theatre killing over a hundred hostages. Henry, an agent stationed in Moscow at the time, was forced to cooperate with the FSB, the Russian secret police. Steinhauer cleverly incorporates the repercussions of that debacle into the plot, one which finds Henry “limping out of Moscow” and establishing a relationship with Celia in Vienna.

One of the trademarks of a spy is being a consummate actor who must lie. Henry delivers one lie after another although I wondered how he could keep them straight considering how much wine he consumes. But is Celia, who was once an accomplished CIA analyst, also lying? One indication that she may be is flagged by her early salvo to Henry, “Welcome to California. Don’t take any of us at face value.” It soon becomes clear that she has an agenda. Gradually, the breezy innocent surface of their conversation turns into a high stakes white-knuckled cat-and–mouse game as each attacks, deflects and counterattacks. I must admit that I did not see the jaw-dropping conclusion coming until very late into the novel. I even reread parts to see whether Steinhauer plants some early clues that I missed on first reading, and he does. Unlike The Cairo Affair and the earlier highly-acclaimed Milo Weaver trilogy with their sprawling storylines and multiple characters, All the Old Knives is a relatively short, stripped-down novel. It is a highly engrossing pas de deux between the two main characters where the personal and the professional are deeply entwined. It is also a deceptively ‘fast read’ novel but do not read it too quickly.

(photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

No comments:

Post a Comment