Quick Review: ALL THE OLD KNIVES by Olen Steinhauer (Minotaur)

SteinhauerO-AllTheOldKnivesUSA very good, slow-burning spy thriller

Six years ago in Vienna, terrorists took over a hundred hostages, and the rescue attempt went terribly wrong. The CIA’s Vienna station was witness to this tragedy, gathering intel from its sources during those tense hours, assimilating facts from the ground and from an agent on the inside. So when it all went wrong, the question had to be asked: Had their agent been compromised, and how?

Two of the CIA’s case officers in Vienna, Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison, were lovers at the time, and on the night of the hostage crisis Celia decided she’d had enough. She left the agency, married and had children, and is now living an ordinary life in the idyllic town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Henry is still a case officer in Vienna, and has traveled to California to see her one more time, to relive the past, maybe, or to put it behind him once and for all.

But neither of them can forget that long-ago question: Had their agent been compromised? If so, how? Each also wonders what role tonight’s dinner companion might have played in the way the tragedy unfolded six years ago.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from All the Old Knives. It’s the first Steinhauer novel I’ve read, despite collecting his Tourist series over the past few years (there are so many series I have to catch up on). This is a slow-burning, engaging novel about a past intelligence failure and the lasting legacy it has over those who were involved. It touches upon themes of loyalty, love and trust. And what some people are willing to do to protect the ones they love, and what can ultimately make them reassess.

Steinhauer’s writing is tight and excellently composed. The characters are well-developed and three-dimensional, each dealing with the fallout from Vienna in their separate ways. The novel moves at a steady pace, and alternates between the perspectives of Henry and Celia. Each recalls their own part in the tragedy in Vienna, slowly giving the reader more of the story. The final revelation is superbly done, and the final chapter is one of the best I’ve read (those final moments!). To begin with, the novel had felt rather slow, but it quickly became apparent that Steinhauer was going for the slow-burn reveal, which ultimately gave the final few chapter real punch. It’s also far more about the impact of the terrorist attack, rather than the attack itself — in fact, we get surprisingly few details about the events in Vienna, and only the few relevant details to the protagonists’ ongoing issues and relationship.

If you haven’t read anything by Steinhauer yet, then this is a great place to start. Highly recommended for all fans of thrillers and spy novels.

All the Old Knives is published by Minotaur Books in March 2015.

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