Novel: The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

Spy fiction’s most structurally dazzling writer, Olen Steinhauer, returns with The Cairo Affair (2014), a rare singleton novel from an author known for his epic series. His Yalta Boulevard sequence and Milo Weaver trilogy are among the genre’s best series, but this one actually brings to mind a lesser-known Steinhauer work: his novella “You Know What’s Going On” from the anthology Agents of Treachery, which possesses a similarly meticulous plot that unravels cleverly through point-of-view shifts and overlapping timelines.

Sophie Kohl is the wife of an American diplomat, leading a calm and conservative existence on her husband Emmett’s arm. But underneath a placid surface is a carefully hidden, infrequently tapped wild side. Sophie’s inner adventurer is roused yet again when her husband is shot to death in a Budapest restaurant, right in front of her. In the aftermath, she wrestles with her trauma by investigating his death.  It’s an emotional journey that forces her to confront the demons of her past, including a reckless affair in Cairo, and a dark secret from her wayward youth during a spontaneous trip to Serbia.

Layering mystery upon mystery, Steinhauer builds the intrigue brilliantly, spinning his narrative both forward and backward across several characters’ experiences, to reveal gradually both the current situation and the events that built up to it. From Sophie’s viewpoint, we travel into the minds of Cairo-based CIA man Stan Bertolli, independent contractor John Calhoun, and Egyptian intelligence officer Omar Halawi, each following their own paths and solving their own riddles against a vivid backdrop of political crisis, as the Arab Spring transforms the Middle East. It’s a remarkable tapestry, which renders a dizzingly complicated scenario clear, through several disparate filters. Each character’s limited information chisels away to reveal a big picture, and watching that picture resolve is something to behold.

It’s an engrossing, powerful read, with all the action, intrigue, treachery, and complicated geopolitics you could want in a spy novel, plus a cast of accessible and well delineated characters. Sophie Kohl is a particularly strong character, a refreshingly nuanced female protagonist in a genre not know for them. Until The Cairo Affair, I had Steinhauer ranked as my third-favorite spy novelist, but with this exceptional book I think he has climbed past Alan Furst into second place, right behind the unassailable John le Carré. This guy is the real deal, and I can’t wait for his next.

UPDATE: The Cairo Affair is also available in audiobook format; check out this clip, courtesy of Macmillan Audio!

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