Quite possibly the cleverest thriller of the year to the date, Olen Steinhauer has created an absorbing read that combines all the pacey tension of an espionage plot, framed within the seemingly simple setting of an intimate dinner for two.
Nine years ago, Henry and Celia were lovers and colleagues working for a CIA station in Vienna… until one fateful event. Terrorists hijacked a passenger plane at the airport and the rescue attempt went badly wrong. Everyone on board was killed. The CIA operatives who witnessed this tragedy were then tasked with discovering how things went awry, and how one of their agents on board the plane was compromised.
That fateful night haunted both Henry and Celia and led to the breakdown of their relationship. Celia resigned from the CIA and embarked on a new life back in suburban California. Henry remained a CIA analyst, and he travels to the States to see Celia one more time and relive the past events. As their reunion over dinner begins to play out, just what secrets from the past will be brought to light over the events on that night?
All the Old Knives is a slim read – more of an extended novella than a novel. Steinhauer packs more of an emotional punch, though, and it has enough heart-stopping tension for a thrillers twice its length. The author adopts a more minimalist form of contemporary European fiction writing, and fuses that with a shady espionage tale that could easily have been written by someone like John Le Carre. The combination these styles of is entrancing throughout, and often what is not said has as much impact as what is.
The plot, with its shifting timelines and revisiting of past events is controlled, and beautifully weighted, as Steinhauer moves us back and forth between Vienna and the ordinary confines of a restaurant. He references Christopher Reid’s extended poem The Song of Lunch, which sees two old lovers reunited and going back over their previous relationship, and the adoption of this as the central narrative is used to great effect. Piece by piece, Henry and Celia’s past life together is deconstructed, and their roles in the Vienna hijacking are slowly made clearer to us. There is a wonderful melding of clear-minded duplicity and pure human emotion that catches you by surprise throughout. It is taut, intelligent, perplexing and intriguing writing of the highest order with one of the most unexpected denouements this reader has encountered.
Henry and Celia true natures are carefully concealed from the beginning, but as the meal goes on tongues are loosened, inhibitions and awkwardness begin to break down, truths are revealed and the darker strands of human emotion begin to surface. Across three timelines – pre-Vienna, Vienna, and the present – we look at whether or not one of them was responsible for exposing an agent, leading to the tragedy.
It is interesting how Steinhauer draws on the issue of growing older, and how it dictates so strongly the different paths we take, and relationships we seek as we mature and age. This is conveyed through both protagonists. Little wonder then, that this strength of characterisation and shifting plot got me through the book in one sitting – it’s that gripping! Little wonder too that it’s being made into a film. Exceptional writing and a hugely satisfying and thought-provoking read.
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CFL Rating: 5 Stars