All the Old Knives
A good yarn often happens over a good meal. With the right food and a glass of fine wine, people talk. Olen Steinhauer builds from that premise and sets up a James Bondish tale of espionage set over dinner in his latest novel All the Old Knives. The bestselling author of The Cairo Affair has impeccable timing with this thriller about a terrorist attack in Vienna and the ongoing search for the truth about what went wrong in the CIA’s handling of the incident.
Against today’s backdrop of ISIS, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and other modern day terrorist organizations, Steinhauer creates a scenario in which a group called Aslim Taslam has hijacked an airplane on the tarmac in Vienna with over 100 people aboard. When the book opens, five years have passed since the attack, and the main character, Henry Pelham is trying to wrap up the investigation of how the CIA operated during the hostage crisis.
Prepare yourself to turn pages fast.
Henry Pelham is a CIA officer based in Vienna at the time of the hostage crisis. He was (and remains) in love with a fellow CIA officer, Celia Harrison (since married) who retires after the tragedy, leaving her post in Vienna to relocate to California.
Pelham tracks her down for a long dinner conversation over which they review what happened—both in the terrorist attack and between them. Aboard his flight from Vienna to California, Pelham prepares for the reunion. “During the flights I sustained myself with an image of my terminal point: a stool and a long bar to support my exhausted frame. It’s what I want Celia to see when she arrives—a man in a man’s place.”
What does Celia want from the reunion? Steinhauer keeps you guessing as Celia unravels her thinking and mixed emotions about having left her CIA job to marry and raise kids. “Without the security of a family around me, I’m only half a person,” she muses. “The problem was that my years with the Agency were like addiction. I was drunk on the thrill of secret knowledge, too focused on the next high to ever think about what was going to make me whole.”
At the heart of the investigation is the question of who might have tipped off the hijackers about a CIA passenger on the doomed plane. Steinhauer is masterful at blending memories, events, and suspicions—pointing fingers in many directions.
As with all good espionage stories, everyone is guessing. “Perhaps Ahmed boarded the plane as part of the hijacking and is being used to feed us misinformation,” Celia speculates. “It’s a sign of my desperation that I even consider this. It goes against what we learned at the Farm: You go with what the evidence suggests, not with what makes an entertaining narrative.”
Entertaining spy novels often take a few liberties. As a former national security official, I am prone to catch errors or unlikely events in international stories. The notion, for example, that on the night of the hijacking, aware of what was happening, that any of the CIA station personnel in Vienna would go out to dinner or home is a bit preposterous. Having said that, the Russia-related twists and turns in the plot are highly believable, with former FSB officers cooperating with American spies, Chechen infiltrations, U.S.-Russia tensions. Even Vladimir Putin gets in the act.
What All the Old Knives does well is confuse the reader even as the characters are confused about who and what to believe, including Henry, who is left with conflicting views of Celia. “Celia 1 was a professional manipulator, while Celia 2 is disarmingly earnest, which leads to the inevitable suspicion that Celia 2 is the fake here, a puppet whose strings are being caressed and manipulated by the woman who once shared my bed.”
All is fair in love and spying. Lying is also fair game in these tales. In the end, a long dinner leaves you just a bit hungry with an appetite for the next Steinhauer thriller.