It’s been five years since I last visited Olen Steinhauer, and the absence has been too long. Liberation Movements and particularly The Bridge of Sighs proved that he is much more than a masterful creator of thrillers. He also delves into character and creates voices on a par with top-notch people like Ian McEwan. Maybe that’s extravagant praise, but not by much.
All the Old Knives takes us to a quiet restaurant in Carmel CA, where again CIA operative Henry Pelham is reconnecting with colleague/lover “Celia Favreau, nee Harrison.” They haven’t seen one another for some years. Not since an incident in Vienna involving an airplane (Details dribble out over the course of the narrative.), after which Celia severed her ties with the CIA, married a retired businessman, had a couple of kids, and settled down. Pelham is here to pin down some mysterious details about her role in the incident for a report he ‘s preparing, a report that could be quite damaging to the careers and/or reputations of the CIA personnel involved. There’s a suggestion that if Celia’s answers don’t match up, Pelham’s prepared to give the nod to a hit man.
Usually, I’m no fan of an author’s withholding information that a narrator holds in his/her mind merely for the sake of building tension or enhancing an ending. In this case, though, Steinhauer makes it work. I’ll say no more. The conversation is masterful. A probe here, a revelation there. They still obviously have feelings for one another, but they are just as obviously protecting themselves. Half-truths are the order of the evening. And the action and ending depends on both characters guessing correctly which truths are full or halves. We get lots of flashbacks with action, so we’re not confined to the restaurant. But the focus is always this conversation. It’s a fascinating contretemps with a nicely ambiguous ending.