Friday, May 20, 2016

All The Old Knives--A Book Review

For a number of years one of my favorite fiction genres to read was the good old spy novel. The novels I preferred, and the ones overwhelmingly available during that time, revolved around the Cold War with some sort of nefarious Russian cabal plotting to destroy Western Civilization by either political subterfuge or outright nuclear war. Of course, by the end of the book an American or British spy—not James Bond—used their superior intelligence and skills to defeat the threat and save our way of life.

Many of them were quite clever books that while skirting the edges of Jame Bondian cliche with the use of gee whiz gadgets that solved certain tough points in the plot the author couldn't otherwise get around, still they were moderately enjoyable if not believable. When the Cold War ended with the Soviet Union a dead and rotting dinosaur, spy novels for me lost their way with some authors becoming quite desperate to resurrect some grand evil enemy for which their characters could go into action again to save the world. What really started turning my stomach and driving me away from the genre were the insipid books where the hero was some right-wing zealot who had spent years being persecuted by naive and decadent liberals that were little better than the enemy he was ultimately called upon to defeat.

Yes, there were still well crafted and complex spy novels written in the style of John le Carré being published during that time. But honestly, they were overwhelmed by the Tom Clancy-like works typified by his fictional super spy, Jack Ryan. Truthfully, I have to admit that I enjoyed a number of Clancy's books but there came a point during Jack Ryan's adventures I half expected the man to save the Earth from an alien invasion. Instead, Clancy had his creation do something only slightly less implausible and become Vice President of the United States after the sitting VP is forced to resign due to corruption. If I remember correctly, in that particular novel, Ryan was offered the position as a form of gratitude for services he provided the nation. At the time I rolled my eyes at the ridiculous idea, which in my opinion actually bordered on silly fantasy, that such an important position would be frivolously offered to a non-politician. Leave it to Clancy to double down and have Ryan then become president after an insane Japanese airline pilot flies his plane into the Capitol Building during a State of the Union speech which kills everyone inside.

The only thing more outrageous is that here in 2016, there is a terrifying possibility a narcissistic real estate developer with zero idea of how the world actually works might become our next POTUS. So I guess you could say Clancy just posthumously proved real life is far weirder than anything that might appear in fiction.

That being said, I recently I took a chance with a spy novel called All The Old Knives by Otto Steinhauer and came away with a new appreciation of the genre.

The novel centers almost exclusively on the two characters, Henry Peham and Celia Harrison and except for flashbacks takes places curiously enough in a restaurant located in Camel-by-the-Sea, California. But back in 2006, CIA agents Henry and Celia were lovers stationed in Vienna doing the usual stuff like gathering intelligence and carefully developing relationships with different people. Not really earthshaking duties but what a lot of James Bond fans and armchair generals either don't know or ignore is that the vast majority of intelligence gathering is tedious desk work along with cultivating and maintaining networks of informants.

Henry and Celia's romantic relationship during their time in Vienna is pretty much what you might expect from two people who have put their careers ahead of their personal lives. But that has not prevented both from contemplating making a commitment with each other. Strangely even though both have been around the block a number of times with other love interests while pursuing their careers it is Henry who most fervent about making a life with Celia . Unbeknownst to Henry, she harbors strong doubts about even maintaining their current level of involvement.

It all comes undone when terrorists hijack an airliner at the Vienna airport and threaten to kill all the passengers if a number of their comrades are not immediately released from European prisons.

Given the danger of the situation the entire CIA staff in Vienna jumps into high gear to learn everything they can about the terrorists and their mindset. At first there is good news when the Vienna CIA station learn they have an asset on the plane who is sending them text messages about the situation. But that informational light at the end of the tunnel turns out to get an onrushing train when they discover that asset has either been discovered or is now working for the terrorists.

The end result is that all the hostages die on the plane leaving multiple questions unanswered as to what the hell happened. The night of that disaster, Celia decides she has had enough of the spy business and leaves Henry high and dry.

Years later Celia is now living in the idyllic California town by the ocean, married to a corporate drone, and has pumped out two kids. Henry on the other hand is still working for the CIA in Vienna and has been assigned the task of finding the answers as to what actually happened. There is disturbing allegations that the asset on the plane might have been betrayed by someone inside the Vienna station. Using the excuse that he is in the area attending a conference Henry call up Celia and innocently suggests that have dinner together to talk about old times.

Celia is dubious of the request and concerned Henry might still be harboring feelings for her. Henry actually does harbor feelings for his old love, as well as a hefty dose of resentment but he still attempts to be the professional and goes to Carmel to interview her.

After the two arrive at the restaurant, and are seated the book becomes a series of flashbacks with each telling their point of view of the events. As the two discuss what happened, Celia quickly catches on that Henry's visit to her new hometown is anything but innocent. The two begin to play an alternating game of cat and mouse with each other with the loser paying the ultimate price.

All the Old Knives is not a perfect book, it's a glorified novella actually but the psychological interplay between Henry and Celia more than makes up for any deficiencies. Love, hate, paranoia, and betrayal are all on display between those two and it is that reason alone that I thoroughly enjoyed the book. As you can expect I highly recommend it but with one word of caution. After reading other reviews it is clear this is one of those novels where the reader either loves it or totally hates everything about it. All I can say is that for me it beats the hell out of the most other spy novels currently being published.


Nasreen Iqbal said...

I don't believe I have ever read a spy novel. I wouldn't even know where to start.

Pixel Peeper said...

I used to read spy novels as a teenager. They were really popular during that time, with Germany of course being an ideal place for spies (with agents from the East and the West sharing the same language, it makes being found out a bit more difficult).

sage said...

I've never been much into spy novels (at least not since high school), but you make this sound interesting.

Beach Bum said...

Nasreen: Try this guy or John le Carré if interested. Great novels that rally let you get inside the characters minds.

Pixel: Yeah, your comment reminded me that back in 1987 while on REFORGER driving around Munster I was reading one of those cheap spy paperbacks. I don't remember the author, or much of the book other than it involved the CIA killing off a superspy so the brain of an elderly computer scientist could be transplanted over.

Sage: This one had its faults but I did enjoy it.