Cover image of "All the Old Knives," a novel about a terrorist hijacking

Just try to dream up a story linking a terrorist hijacking in Vienna and the CIA with two former lovers at dinner in a gourmet restaurant in Carmel, California. Give up? Well, it’s been done.

This curious little book — a novella, really — emerged from the author’s long-standing desire to write a book centered on two people at dinner. I don’t know about you, but I’m always suspicious (and often disdainful) about fiction that’s meant to execute someone’s idea about writing style or structure. This sort of thing is usually referred to as “literature,” and as far as I’m concerned, it often sucks. However, Olen Steinhauer, a consummately talented writer of espionage novels, has managed to avoid the sinkhole of self-indulgent “literature” and produce an example of heart-pounding suspense. He’s done it many times before, and I’m certain he’ll do it again.

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer ★★★★☆

It turns out that that dinner for two, while the centerpiece of the story and the scene of the story’s climax, takes a back seat to the many flashbacks that explore the years of events leading up to the dinner. And those events — the central one of which is a terrorist hijacking of a civilian aircraft — lend the story its heft.

All the Old Knives unwinds in alternating sections that represent the recollections of the two principal characters, Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison. At the time of the terrorist hijacking in Vienna, both were officers of the CIA there. They were also lovers. Now, years later, Celia has long been retired to a life of luxury in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, one of the wealthiest and most idyllic communities anywhere.

Then Henry calls her from Vienna to suggest they get together for dinner during a trip he’ll be making to a conference in a nearby town. Celia can’t imagine why Henry would propose this, other than that he might still be smitten with her, but we learn from Henry that he’s been assigned to follow up the long-unsolved mystery of what happened that fateful night in Vienna, when a CIA agent was one of 120 passengers murdered on the plane. Had their agent been betrayed by someone inside the station? Was one of them involved?

From beginning to end, All the Old Knives is full of suspense. It’s surprising to the last drop.

Olen Steinhauer is sometimes hailed as a worthy successor to John Le Carre, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler. I agree. All the Old Knives is his tenth novel. I’ve read and loved all the rest, most of them reviewed on this blog.

For more great reading     

I’ve reviewed five other novels by the author at Olen Steinhauer’s brilliant Yalta Boulevard cycle set in Eastern Europe.

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