Olen Steinhauer is an absolute master of spy fiction. The process of reading through his catalogue has built this impression over time, but his latest, All the Old Knives (2015), seals the deal. By Steinhauer standards it’s a slim read, but it’s no less rich and intricate than usual, and in some ways more compact and intense.
An old hand of the CIA, Henry Pelham, flies halfway around the world to Carmel, California, ostensibly on routine matters, but in reality to meet with a retired colleague, Celia Favreau, who also happens to be his former lover. Their career paths crossed in Vienna in the mid-2000s—Henry after a rough stint in Moscow, Celia an emerging service star fresh off an assignment in Dublin. But their fortunes, and their romance, took a brutal turn, shattered by a terrorist act that would loom like a black cloud over the officers of the Vienna station for years to come. Now, years later, the ex-lovers reunite in an exclusive, quiet restaurant, a rendezvous that commences with a breezy, innocent surface. But there’s tension bubbling underneath their cool conversation that relentlessly digs back into the haunting mysteries of their intelligence-career pasts, revealing hidden agendas.
Steinhauer’s brief foreword suggests that the idea for All the Old Knives began as something of a formal exercise: an attempt to tell an espionage tale in the form of a dinner conversation. Ultimately, he doesn’t hew too rigorously to that idea, relying on flashback and interior monologue to send his protagonists—both Henry and Celia take turns delivering first-person narration—back to Europe in order to backfill their history. But the general conceit, of two former colleagues and lovers mining the past together over dinner, is the crux of the story, and it’s masterfully executed. Beyond the bells and whistles of espionage, the novel succeeds on the strength of the nuanced relationship between the two spies: their career history together, how they came together, what eventually tore them apart. When each flashback ends and we return to the table, a new layer of comprehension is unlocked, and the interplay between them takes on new meaning.
Revealing more would be criminal. Suffice it to say that it’s yet another brilliant book. The pace is blistering, the plot is involved and compelling, and most importantly, the characters are accessible, convincing, and richly imagined. I suspect this one is going to make a great movie some day.