The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

I am a huge Olen Steinhauer fan so I have been wanting to read his latest, The Cairo Affair, for some time (particularly after I read On the Lisbon Disaster). I was finally able to get my hands on it and quickly dived in to its murky waters:

CairoAffairSophie Kohl is living her worst nightmare. Minutes after she confesses to her husband, a mid-level diplomat at the American embassy in Hungary, that she had an affair while they were in Cairo, he is shot in the head and killed.

Stan Bertolli, a Cairo-based CIA agent, has fielded his share of midnight calls. But his heart skips a beat when he hears the voice of the only woman he ever truly loved, calling to ask why her husband has been assassinated.

Omar Halawi has worked in Egyptian intelligence for years, and he knows how to play the game. Foreign agents pass him occasional information, he returns the favor, and everyone’s happy. But the murder of a diplomat in Hungary has ripples all the way to Cairo, and Omar must follow the fall-out wherever it leads.

American analyst Jibril Aziz knows more about Stumbler, a covert operation rejected by the CIA, than anyone. So when it appears someone else has obtained a copy of the blueprints, Jibril alone knows the danger it represents.

Steinhauer use an ensemble cast, and his more literary style, to create a unique espionage thriller with current events and Eastern Europe’s dark history as the backdrop.

Given my fandom it is really no surprise that I liked Olen’s latest espionage thriller but let me tell you why I did anyway.

What I really like about this one was the way the different and changing perspectives of the various characters were weaved into the plot and built the tension even as it changed the story. It really highlighted how what we know and when we know it changes what we think and how we interact with people. As is driven home toward the end, we like to think we operate with machine logic (cold, calculating, factual, etc.) but we really operate with human logic (emotional, contingent, unstable, etc.).

The Cairo Affair is an interesting blend of traditional espionage (the who Killed Emmett Kohl aspect) with a more traditional narrative structure about a character’s choices and their repercussions (the Sophie Kohl et al thread). Steinhauer brings these two threads together in a satisfying way. Great character development but plenty of suspense and tension. Plus, the background of current events in the Middle East add flavor and political intrigue.

James McBride had a very different reaction:

But “The Cairo Affair” is written in the tight space between WikiLeaks revelations and Arab Spring headlines, and it jumps wildly around in order to make the plot work — back 20 years here, a few days ahead there. Back. Forth. Here, there, everywhere. There are too many characters, too many situations, too many scenes swallowed up by a back story that feels hastily shoved into place so the pieces will fit and the puzzle make sense. The overall effect is like sitting through one of those new super duper jazz concerts where the band kicks off at 7 p.m., three hours go by, then you look at your watch and it’s only 7:15. You want to ask the guy sitting next to you the name of the song, but you don’t want to look stupid. So you sit there, waiting for the melody to come along. Lots of music, lots of riffs, but, alas, no melody.

First of all, sometimes a book just doesn’t “work” for the reader and this seems to be the case for McBride.  But I also sense that he didn’t connect with some important aspects of the story.  For example, he questions the actions of Sophie but seems to miss the events in the Balkans, and her actions in Egypt, that would have changed her character and explained her actions after her husband’s murder.  She wasn’t simply an Ivy League graduate and wife spoiled by the diplomatic life.

The back and forth and the weaving perspectives serve to illustrate the complexity of history, national and personal, and the way events and knowledge shape our choices and our sorting of the “facts” we encounter.  All of the characters are trying to sort truth from fiction, trying to put the puzzle pieces together and understand not just their next step but the motivations and likely actions of the other characters.

Court Haslett gets at this aspect:

Some might find that the retelling of events from different perspectives slows the momentum of the story, especially if this device was just a narrative trick, or a means to conduct individual character studies without advancing the plot. But that’s not the case here. Each time the events are retold, another crucial piece of information is gleaned, and we move closer and closer to the truth.

I am not sure we get closer to the “truth” but we understand more about the motivations and beliefs of the various actors.  But I suppose that eventually builds up enough facts to create an explanation that begins to explain the whole.

And as one of the characters says:

Intelligence is a pseudoscience, like astrology. Sometimes the outcome seems to prove that your methods and techniques are infallible. Other times, it proves the exact opposite.

I also found McBride metaphor interesting. What if there is not a clear-cut melody? Does that make it bad music? It seems McBride expected a certain type of spy novel and when he didn’t get it he assumes the fault lies with the author.  Steinhauer’s more literary and philosophical approach to espionage sometimes results in a less defined melody; something more like improvisational jazz.

But contra McBride, I did find the melody (or a melody) in the shifting perspectives.  What I found interesting is that after all the searching for motivation (was it personal: related to Sophie’s affair; or institutional: related to the CIA attempting to hide its secrets; nationalist:  Gaddafi attempting to protect his country/power from America; etc.) that it came down to simple greed and fear.  However it started, the events that unfolded ultimately came down to one person trying to protect his access to money and power.  And it took a man willing to risk his own security and comfort to finally stop the bloodshed.

If you are looking for clean-cut, what you might call “traditional”, espionage I am not sure Steinhauer is the choice.  If you want plots and characters that move in straight lines, albeit with lots of loop de loop and diversions thrown in, look elsewhere. Although, to be clear, I don’t think Steinhauer writes existential novels where conventional plots are nowhere to be found. I just mean that he explores the grey and contingent rather than the black and white and determined.  He wrestles with how we know what we know, or what we think we know, and its impact on our choices and actions.

I love this engagement and  the literary style that accompanies it.  It is also fun to see Steinhauer tackle new styles and approaches to his writing.  This ensemble of characters, although Sophie in many ways takes the lead, is a new way of handling a spy thriller (as Haslett notes).  I think Steinhauer pulled it off with elegance but will acknowledge that it might not be for everyone.

If for some unknown reason you have not read Olen’s work, I highly recommend all of his books. I love the Eastern European series but if you prefer espionage start with The Tourist and the Milo Weaver series. The Cairo Affair is a great stand alone work. I hope it motivates more readers to explore Steinhauer’s earlier work.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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