All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer: A review

All the Old KnivesAll the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I learned of this book through a review by my fellow blogger, Carmen, who liked and recommended it. After reading her review, I decided to put it in my reading queue.

I confess I was not familiar with Olen Steinhauer's work, but it seems he has authored a number of novels of international intrigue that have been highly acclaimed. From what I have learned of his writing, he specializes in elaborate, very intricate plots which keep the reader guessing right up until the end. All the Old Knives continues that tradition.

This is the story of two old C.I.A. colleagues and lovers, Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison (now Favreau). They were working together in Vienna in 2006 when something so catastrophic happened that it marked the lives of everyone involved forever. There was a hostage incident at the Vienna airport in which terrorists took over an airplane with 120 souls aboard. They demanded the release of several prisoners or else they would kill everyone on board.

Negotiations proceeded but it developed that the terrorists knew what the authorities' response would be. They had inside knowledge. Someone was feeding them information. Was it a C.I.A. officer?

It turned out that there was a C.I.A. asset on board the plane and he was managing to get information out to the agency, but he was betrayed by the informant and the terrorists killed him. In the end, they killed everyone on the plane. It was a nightmare scenario.

The night that all those people were killed was also the night that Henry's and Celia's affair ended. Celia decided she'd had enough and walked out. Months later, she married an older man from California and went to live in idyllic Carmel-by-the-sea. Six years and two kids later, she is contacted by Henry. He is still with the C.I.A. in Vienna and is allegedly investigating the airplane incident to try to discover who was the traitor who passed information to the terrorists. He wants to talk with Celia about it.

They arrange to meet for dinner in Carmel at a restaurant aptly named Rendez-vous and this is where the main action of the book takes place. We learn about everything else - Vienna, their affair, relations with other C.I.A. agents in Vienna - through flashbacks as they dine.

It is soon evident to the reader that there is much more to this dinner than appears on the surface. Both of these characters are haunted by the past. And perhaps by their guilt?

We learn of the Vienna incident through the eyes and the words of both Henry and Celia and we find that they see the past very differently. They each remember every detail of their last time together but their perceptions of the the event could not be more different.

As these differences are revealed, the reader becomes aware that there has been a betrayal of more than just the C.I.A. asset on the plane. Indeed, one of the diners may know quite a lot about who was responsible for the deaths of the passengers on the plane and may have insider knowledge of just how it happened. This isn't just a meal; it is a confrontation. These two are playing a deadly game for the highest of stakes. Which one will be the winner? Or, possibly, will they both be losers? It becomes pretty clear that the evening is not going to end happily.

Steinhauer maintains the suspense right up until the devastating showdown at the end. His plotting is impeccable and his narrative style keeps the reader guessing and off-balance.

Why haven't I read any of his books before? I plan to remedy that situation as soon as possible.

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  1. Hi, Dorothy,
    Thanks for mentioning my blog and I'm delighted that you liked this one as I did. I too want to read my of Steinhauer's other works; I have two of his books in my queue to read perhaps next year.

    1. I'm happy to give credit for turning me on to this book. I love reading my fellow bloggers because they often inform me about writers that I had not known about before This particular book was a great find!

  2. did Henry give the order to have Celia killed?...just finished it and am wondering...

    1. It's a bit ambiguous, isn't it, but that seems to be the implication.


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