All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

Book review knives

Title: All the old knives

Author: olen steinhauer

Genre: romance/ futuristic/ action

Rating: ***

Review: Espionage work is associated with darkness and danger, according to those who make their living writing about it. These, of course, include experts in the genre like John le Carre and Olen Steinhauer, whose new and memorably titled book is tailored to the kind of terror that spies live with.

“All the Old Knives” is a love story hauntingly set in the framework of a terrorist attack aboard a plane at the airport in Vienna. It is a book of memories, and there is little doubt as to the well-honed cynicism that infuses these recollections of the past that rarely, if at all, holds any hope for the future.

The couple at the center of the book are Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison, who became lovers when they were CIA case officers in Vienna in 2006. That was also the time that terrorists took over a plane carrying more than 100 hostages and made their intentions clear by moving the nine children between the ages of 5 and 12 to the front of the cabin. The terrorists threaten that the children will be harmed as punishment for disobedience by any of the other passengers. A stewardess who confronts one of the terrorists is shot in the chest and killed. The terrorists then make plain their warning, “Each time someone attempts to interfere with our work, one of the children will die.”

The book is set five years later in a careful setting of a casual lunch, and the plot unfolds in flashbacks and vivid recollections of the role played by Henry and Celia during the disaster in Vienna. It would mark the end of their relationship and takes Celia to the United States where she marries, has a family and settles down in the idyllic California town of Carmel. It is there that Henry and Celiameet, but they avoid what they really need to talk about, which is the unforgotten case in Vienna. Watching her in the restaurant,Henry assesses his memories of the woman he calls “Celia 1” and “Celia 2.” He remembers the Celia (Celia 1) “who knew how to spin a story, invent on the fly and draw you deep in a maze of fabrications imbued with so much authenticity that you never, not even years later, knew whether or not you had been taken for a ride.”

He sees Celia 1 as a professional manipulator while Celia 2 is “disarmingly earnest which leads to suspicions that she is a fake.” And he adds with a note of bitterness that pervades the plot, “Am I finally face to face with the real Celia after all these years?” Their rendezvous is portrayed as a fact-finding meeting tracking the airport disaster that ended onHenry and Celia’s watch, and in which they still suspect a mole was involved. Despite the skill with which Mr. Steinhauerdissects the relationship between the ex-spies and the tension that mounts during what might have been a sentimental reunion, the shadow of death and disaster persists because Henry is running an investigation into the CIA role in the Viennese slaughter where he was a veteran field agent. Celiais a critical piece of a ghastly puzzle, the keeper of a terrible secret that Henry shares.

Mr. Steinhauer is an expert at twists and turns, all the more riveting for their truth. It is Henrywho reflects on Celia’s ultimate fate. “She’s put it all together and although she put it together years ago and said nothing, I can’t depend on her silence now. … Either I abide by the need for self preservation or I die.”

Celia listens to the slow story that unfolds, so full of details. She thinks that she wants this to be another lie and is convinced thatHenry is haunted by the end of their relationship more than by the Vienna disaster. They become aware of what they have done to each other and each is aware of what they are facing.

It is typical of Mr. Steinhauer’s eloquent style and his capacity for accepting and depicting the worst that the last sentence in his book tells it all. “Someone’s turning down the lights in the restaurant, or maybe it’s just me.”

Buy it here:


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