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All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

Published by Minotaur Books on March 10, 2015

All the Old Knives tells a compelling story. It is a simpler story than the plots found in many spy novels. The central idea is the traditional fare of spy novels -- a mole in the CIA has given information to the enemy and the reader is challenged to discover the mole's identity -- but the focus of this relatively short novel is on just two characters engaged in an intricate dance, probing each other over a quiet dinner. Having cut away the complexity of plot that often attends such stories, Olen Steinhauer is free to focus on the complexity of two primary characters, each of whom is haunted by the past.

Information received from a Gitmo prisoner in 2012 suggests that a traitor within the American embassy assisted a terrorist attack at the Vienna airport six years earlier. The improbable accusation sends Henry Pelham scurrying off to interview people who might have relevant information, including Celia Favreau, a former lover who left the CIA and is now married with children. Pelham meets her in Carmel, "a perfect place to live if you want to be someone other than you once were." Pelham is prepared to end her life, if necessary.

This sounds like a plot that's been done before but Steinhauer makes it seem fresh. The theme of betrayal is common to books about espionage but the best ones use betrayal to teach a lesson. The lesson here is that betrayal, whether by individuals or governments, will almost always come back around to bite you in the backside. Steinhauer illustrates that lesson in a story that is tight, tense, and convincing. All the Old Knives doesn't have the breadth of the best spy fiction and the ending is a bit weak, but it is nevertheless a worthy read.


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