Sitting in the top-floor restaurant of London’s Centre Point – before the area became a semi-permanent building site – the American writer Olen Steinhauer told journalists dining with him that he would rather trade in his keyboard than write the same novel twice – and, true to form, All the Old Knives is subtly unlike his earlier books. Yes, it is an espionage piece, sporting much of the psychologically acute, conflicted characterisation of the 1960s school, but it is also written under the constraints of a novel set (for a long crucial period) in a California restaurant, and this elective restriction has paid dividends.
Two ex-lovers arrange to meet for dinner. Nine years previously, Henry Pelham and Celia Favreau began a sexual relationship while working as agents at a CIA station in Indiana. But everything changed when terrorists took over a plane at the airport, and a rescue attempt ended catastrophically with everyone aboard killed. The investigation threw up a series of text messages coming from an Austrian CIA agent on board the plane – had the pair been compromised? A decade may have passed, but Henry and Celia have paid a heavy price for the debacle: the end of their relationship and — in Celia’s case — the termination of her career. He arranges to see his ex-inamorata one more time. As the past is exhumed during a painful tryst over the pan-seared red snapper, Steinhauer provides a wine-fuelled long, dark night of the soul, in which the betrayals of the lovers’ profession are laid bare.
Crime and thriller writers often set themselves particular challenges to refuel their creative juices, such as the detective solving a case from a hospital bed (a scenario adopted by authors from Josephine Tey to Håkan Nesser), and the restricted setting that Steinhauer has adopted here grants the narrative a concentration rare in the genre. The pace is moderato, but exerts a grip as the two lovers pick over the bones of their shattered relationship and the professional debacle they were involved with; Henry discovers that (as so often in many relationships) one partner inevitably loves more than the other. As the exhumation of incidents from the past reaches a devastating conclusion, Steinhauer eschews kinetic excitement for the slow accretion of detail in the amoral, slippery world of the spooks; All the Old Knives is closer to Steinhauer’s own countryman, the rigorous and masterly Charles McCarry, than to Ludlum and his heirs. Stephen King said of Steinhauer’s earlier The Nearest Exit: ‘The best spy novel I’ve ever read that wasn’t written by John le Carré.’ The new book isn’t quite in that league, but it’s a creditable effort.
All the Old Knives, by Olen Steinhauer