ALL THE OLD KNIVES
Not long ago I posted a “Bookin’ with Sunny” review of Olen Steinhauer’s newest spy thriller and remarked on the extraordinary number of characters it contained. I enjoyed The Last Tourist, but felt like I was watching a thriller tennis tournament with so many spies alternately served up and smashed down that it was hard to keep track of them all. Even so, I decided to try another Steinhauer novel because I found his plotting so intriguing. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that All The Old Knives takes place in just a handful of locales and features only two protagonists plus a limited supporting cast. Steinhauer comments, in an author interview, about the fun he had writing a novel “half the length of my usual books,” with “about a quarter of the characters.” I loved it!
Much of All The Old Knives takes place at a dinner table in a Carmel-by-the-Sea restaurant. Harry Pelham, from the CIA’s Vienna station, is dining with his ex-lover, Celia Harrison Favreau, who quit the CIA six years earlier when a hostage situation at the Vienna airport turned disastrous. The two haven’t spoken since that fateful day. Celia has moved on; Henry hasn’t. Married to someone else now, she is the mother of two young children and has tried to put her CIA past well behind her. Henry, however, still dwells on their history together. In fact, he is conducting one more in-depth investigation of that failed hostage crisis, and has flown to California to interview Celia about the role she played that fateful day.
Lingering over dinner, and what seem to be endless glasses of wine, the two recreate the past while musing about the present. The point of view alternates between Harry and Celia, going back and forth between several chapters recounted through his consciousness and then several chapters seen through her eyes. In parallel, they reconstruct what went wrong with the CIA operation six years earlier and what went wrong with their relationship. Occasionally a remembered scene will take place in Vienna and will include other CIA agents who worked there, but most of the action occurs at the Carmel restaurant. Harry and Celia’s actual words, their inner thoughts, and their verbal exchanges, build an almost unbearable psychological tension in All The Old Knives, as the reader tries to surmise what is true and what is fabricated in Harry and Celia’s imaginations.
A Washington Post reviewer called All The Old Knives “a splendid tour de force.” I whole-heartedly agree. Using such a narrow canvas while reaching so broadly into spycraft and human frailties, Steinhauer has created something totally unlike his other thrillers while losing none of the breadth of their frames. All The Old Knives totally immerses the reader in a dangerous and duplicitous world of spies, all while savoring red snapper and veal brisket, syrah, and chardonnay. What went wrong at the Vienna airport in 2006? And how will dinner in 2012 end? You’ll have to turn the very last page of All The Old Knives to answer those conundrums. You won’t be disappointed; a tour de force indeed. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Olen Steinhauer: The Tourist; The Nearest Exi; An American Spy; The Middleman; The Cairo Affair; The Bridge of Sighs; The Confession; 36 Yalta Boulevard; Liberation Movements; Victory Square; The Last Tourist