Saturday, March 14, 2015

From Espionage to Literature (or Vice Versa): Olen Steinhauer, ALL THE OLD KNIVES

Olen Steinhauer's espionage books have made him one of my favorite writers, as his "Tourist" series forges a significant exploration of what it is to feel deeply human emotions (i.e., not be a sociopath) while tackling a job that requires lies, performance, and edgy loyalties. I recommend his books to all who've enjoyed books by John Le Carré, Alan Furst, Charles Cumming, Charles McCarry, and more.

The newest Steinhauer is more of a novella, and closer to Graham Greene than to these others. And the author provides warning of this direction in his front-of-the-book acknowledgments, which explain its genesis: The author watched a gripping dramatization of a Christopher Reid poem turned play (see the poem here:, about two once-were-lovers meeting for lunch, carrying with them their pasts and the division that has made them "old flames." Steinhauer then challenged himself to "write an espionage tale that took place entirely around a restaurant table."

The result does diverge from the tabletop a bit -- to the height of Henry and Celia's romance when they both worked for the CIA in Vienna, Austria, and the dramatic hostage event that each relives daily (or at least in dreams, nightmares). But the heart of ALL THE OLD KNIVES is this: They are about to meet, after five years of not seeing each other, and their conversation is to take place at a California seaside restaurant. (I'm not sure whether there's a traditional expression about old knives for the title -- I don't know one and didn't find one -- but the New York Times review of the book refers to Celia sticking verbal "needles" into Henry, and surely there's a sense of a thousand cuts here.)  Each agent arrives on scene with a different version of that hostage event in mind, and with different motives and deceptions.

If you're looking for the usual espionage plot (secrets hunted, secrets revealed, lives at stake, dark-and-stormy-night chases, some success and some bitterness), pass over this one and go back to the series. But to probe the agony and costs of being a field agent and government operative, as well as the inhumanity of government manipulations, ALL THE OLD KNIVES can be your book of the week -- or year.

At the heart of the conflict: Celia fails to grasp Henry's depths as an agent runner. And Henry never understood Celia-the-person or the relationship they almost carried forward. Layers of revelation peel away with each turn of the pages. John Le Carré has shown us how, as individuals, we are chewed up by international power struggles and forced to confront their inherent corruption while we struggle for integrity. Olen Steinhauer shows instead how the global can be decomposed, such that even the "big events" turn out to be formed by individuals and their passions, their attempts to love, and their points of fracture.

No comments: