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Monday, May 4, 2015

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

Minotaur Books, 304 pages, $23.99

Olen Steinhauer is known for his two series about a) apparatchiks in an unnamed Balkan country and b) an American CIA agent, both of which have received numerous nominations and awards. Before “All the Old Knives,” I most enjoyed another standalone spy book, “The Cairo Affair.” “All the Old Knives” has beaten the others into the dust. This is a sophisticated, twisted, intelligent spy novel.

What is most surprising about this book is that a lot of the “action” takes place in a conversation between two people in an upscale restaurant in Carmel, California. (Is anything not upscale there?) The two people were both American spies in Vienna. Henry has asked to see his former lover and teammate, Celia, because of a tragedy involving terrorists that occurred five years ago, right before Celia got out of the biz.

Was there a mole in their office in Vienna who precipitated the tragedy? Was the mole Celia? Or Henry? Why did Celia leave both their relationship and her job? She is now a plump mother of two young children, living a staid and boring (in comparison to her spying in Vienna) life in Carmel with her much older ex-business executive husband. She thought and had hoped that she had left all the subterfuge and drama behind her.

Sometimes the narration is by Celia, and other times by Henry. We hear one person’s version of what happened, then we hear how the other really felt. Steinhauer’s back-and-forth is ingenious. The denouement is surprising and unexpected. Steinhauer’s writing is elegant and his characterizations necessarily sparse but thorough.

MBTB star!

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