All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

So what could finally pull me out of my book reviewing/blogging doldrums? A new book by Olen Steinhauer of course.

All the Old Knives came out earlier this week and I finally got my hands on a copy and started reading immediately:

All the Old KnivesSix years ago in Vienna, terrorists took over a hundred hostages, and the rescue attempt went terribly wrong. The CIA’s Vienna station was witness to this tragedy, gathering intel from its sources during those tense hours, assimilating facts from the ground and from an agent on the inside. So when it all went wrong, the question had to be asked: Had their agent been compromised, and how?

Two of the CIA’s case officers in Vienna, Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison, were lovers at the time, and on the night of the hostage crisis Celia decided she’d had enough. She left the agency, married and had children, and is now living an ordinary life in the idyllic town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Henry is still a case officer in Vienna, and has traveled to California to see her one more time, to relive the past, maybe, or to put it behind him once and for all.

But neither of them can forget that long-ago question: Had their agent been compromised? If so, how? Each also wonders what role tonight’s dinner companion might have played in the way the tragedy unfolded six years ago.

The hook, in case the above doesn’t make it clear, is that almost the entire book takes place at a restaraunt with the two characters eating dinner (the book opens with Henry traveling to the rendezvous).  Flashbacks take us back in time to the fateful events in Vienna and other key moments.

The chapters alternate between Henry and Celia. And as the conversation deepens, and the backstory plays out, details are revealed and the tension rises. But each time you try to get a character, or the truth, pinned down, Steinhauer throws in a twist or wrinkle.

[What follows includes some discussion that might viewed as spoilery so read on with that in mind]

All the while he is painting a picture of both the mental state, and perspective, of Henry and Celia and the history that led them both to the table.  Henry who still lives in the high stakes and pressurized world of deception and complicated layers that is the CIA.  Celia escaped that world to live in what, on the surface, is its polar opposite (upper class family life on the Central California coast and the intense truth of motherhood).

Both characters morph and change as the story pushes toward its climax.  Initially, Henry seems the tired spy seeking to wrap up an ugly case so it doesn’t come back to haunt him later. The wrinkle being the involvement of his one-time lover; perhaps his one true love.  Celia at first appears only as a mystery; someone who has managed to truly escape the spy world and build a different life.

But as the conversation continues it becomes clear that Celia is more formidable, and deeper, than the reader or Henry might have expected.  And Henry seems weaker, less sure footed, and the challenge of his mission greater.

In fact, I was slightly annoyed by Henry’s odd, rather dark obsession with Celia and the way he describes it. But by the end I understood where it came from; it made sense given the history.

The book is less than 300 pages and it reads fast. The last 80 pages really crank up the tension and as the endgame comes into view, you are furtively reading trying to untangle the knots of lies and hidden truths.

I have to admit I felt a little foolish because I didn’t see a lot of the twists and turns coming.  As the puzzle pieces began to click into place in the final section, you think “Of course! it all makes sense” even though you didn’t see it until after the fact (or at least I didn’t).

The tables turn and suddenly everything looks different; what led to that moment and what will follow.  Up to that point much of the story was puzzles, riddles and the dance of questions and veiled answers.  The reader is sifting the history, evaluating the narrators, trying to makes sense of the motivations and the potential for self-deception.  But then as the climax approaches there is a brutal honesty; a cold bluntness belied by the nonchalantness of some of the actors involved.

And the ending comes swift and clean like the cut of a sharp knife. It leaves you with a wry smile and an appreciation for what Steinhauer has pulled off. Damn, you say to yourself (or at least I did).

Readers of this blog know that I am a fan of Steinhauer’s work. I have enjoyed every single one of this novels. I have enjoyed each new style and perspective he has taken on (from the Cold War novels to The Tourist series and his latest book).

When I was enjoying the Cold War series it was about wanting a bigger audience for his writing but at the same time a quiet enjoyment from knowing a great writer that hadn’t yet achieved much fame.

When All the Old Knives was released I joked with Olen on Facebook that it was getting to the point where I would have to start claiming that I had been a fan when he was a true artist who had not yet sold out to commercial fiction (like music people did with REM in college).

Because he has reached the big time.  The reviewers have caught on to the skill and intellect he brings to his craft; how he blends the entertainment and enjoyment of spycraft and thrillers with literary depth and prose.

Four star reviews are the norm now and you don’t have to hunt through the bookstore to find his books anymore.  Olen Steinhauer is well on its way to being a recognized name; if it isn’t one already.

All the Old Knives is a great read. Taut, fast-paced, and full of suspense and intrigue. It has the quintessential Steinhauer exploration of the human psyche and the espionage world as a stage for asking questions about truth and deception; about the way lies warp and change our relationships and our own self-conception.

But it is different than both his Cold War historical novels and his Tourist series.  Which is another thing that makes Olen such a treat: his willingness to experiment and change as a writer.  Setting an espionage thriller almost entirely around a dinner table was a risk but Steinhauer pulled it off with wit and style.

I think this is a book that would be enjoyable to read again. The first time you can get caught up racing to the end to find out what happens and maybe miss clues and facets along the way.  On the second read you can slow down and savor the details and any pieces you might have missed along the way.

If for some ridiculous reason you haven’t read Steinhauer yet, grab All the Old Knives and get started. Then work your way through the back list. You won’t regret it.

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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