Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Spies and Lovers Take Out ‘All The Old Knives’

ALL THE OLD KNIVES, Olen Steinhauer’s tenth spy thriller, is a doozy. I believe that is the correct literary term for a taut, riveting, well-constructed novel that has you muttering, more than once, Whoa! I didn’t see that coming!

Henry Pelham is a CIA agent, stationed at the U.S. embassy in Vienna. Five years earlier, terrorists took over a plane at Flugenhagen Airport and, when their demands were not met, killed everyone on board, including themselves. A prisoner at Gitmo has now told his
interrogators that a CIA operative assisted the hijackers with real-time information during the hijacking. An internal investigation has been launched with the understanding that the traitor will have to be eliminated: the agency cannot afford a trial.

The pool of suspects is small. Among them is Henry himself; his former lover, Celia (who left the CIA and Henry abruptly after the Flugenhagen massacre); Victor Wallinger, still the station chief; and Bill Compton, Celia’s boss (now retired). The higher-ups insist on an investigation to “eliminate the threat” and Wallinger puts Henry in charge. The matter boils down to which of them, in the midst of the hijacking, made a call from the phone in Compton’s office to the mastermind in Jordan. And why? Was it to pass on information or to misdirect suspicion to someone else?

Henry (who is still in love with the now-married Celia), meets with her in a restaurant in Carmel, California. He’s pretending that he just happens to be in town but she’s been tipped off and knows he’s there to interrogate her. The plot unfolds gradually (and tensely) as they circle each other, recall past events, feint and dodge, each of them knowing that the other is lying, each aware of just how high the stakes are.

Each of them has taken certain precautions and made certain arrangements, before their meeting.

Henry thinks:

Though I made up my mind a while ago, it’s now truly apparent that I can’t go back on the decision. Celia will not survive this night. She can’t. She’s put it all together, and though she put it together years ago and said nothing, I can’t depend on her silence now. Therefore, the decision is not really my decision. It’s an evolutionary choice. Either I abide by the need for self-preservation or I die. There’s no decision at all.

Celia thinks:

I have children, and once you have children your life begins all over again. You start to take care of your health and welfare with a new imperative – the imperative to be around to protect them from the world. It’s no longer about living well now, but about living well for as long as humanly possible. Therefore, a quick fix is no solution. Problems must be dealt with head-on. Threats must be neutralized.

Which of them will prevail? The answer is far from predictable.

As Muriel Dobbin wrote in The Washington Times (4/16/15), “Mr. Steinhauer is an expert at twists and turns, all the more riveting for their truth.”

And, as Art Taylor wrote in The Washington Post (3/8/15), the “whodunit” and “why” are not the only – and maybe not even the most important – concerns.

But the puzzle is just one aspect of a story that’s freighted with considerable emotional and moral weight. If the ending is crisp with irony…, it’s also hauntingly ambiguous, both morally and dramatically. As much as Steinhauer might be exploring how a career in espionage can thwart personal relationships, he’s also plumbing how the personal influences the professional – the role of the human factor, to borrow from a title by Graham Greene, an author to whom Steinhauer has frequently been compared.

Olen Steinhauser has won the Dashiell Hammet Award and is a two-time Edgar Award finalist. He has also written the film script for All the Old Knives, to be directed by Neil Burger.

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