Cover Image: All the Old Knives

All the Old Knives

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3.5 stars rounded up. Six years ago, a team of CIA agents in Vienna, Austria were involved in gathering intel on the terrorists who had highjacked a plane filled with 120 passengers, when the situation goes horribly wrong. Was one of their informants compromised? 

Six years later, one of those case officers, Henry Pelham, is charged with finding out the truth of what happened that night and he's narrowed the suspects down to his former lover and ex-CIA agent, Celia Harrison, now a happily married wife and mother living the dream life in Carmel-By-the-Sea, CA. Can he get her to admit what really happened that night over drinks and dinner? Just why did she walk away from the CIA in the aftermath...and him? 

This tense psychological spy drama will be released as an Amazon Prime Movie on April 8, 2022. I was thrilled to be able to snag an arc of the book from the publisher via NetGalley in time to read the novel and review it before watching the film. Many thanks for the opportunity.
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I am a great fan of spy stories, but hadn't read anything by this author before, so was intrigued to give him a try.   It begins with Henry, re-visiting his old lover, Celia.   Some years before, the two worked together in Vienna.  Now Celia has relocated to California, married and had two children.  

Henry has an ulterior motive for travelling to meet Celia.   A plane was hi-jacked at the airport while the two were in Vienna and everyone on board was killed.  Rumours of a betrayal by an agent, leading to the tragedy,  have reverberated around those involved since that event and now Henry is in search of the truth.   Of course, though, spies always have secrets and most of this book revolves around a meeting that Henry and Celia have in a restaurant. 

As the two duel, the readers learns of their past life, and their relationship, which is believable and sensitively done.   I really enjoyed this novel and will certainly be exploring more books by this author in future.
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This is a wonderfully engrossing cat and mouse standoff between two people trained to lie and be deceptive - as Celia reflects, "...  we are both trained in manipulation ... we are both less than trustworthy ...".  Who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist remains in doubt right up to the very end.

The narrative is intense, well written, skillfully plotted and slightly ambiguous with nothing being given away - Steinhauer maintains his poke face throughout.  This is also a tale of love, revenge and betrayal - as all the pieces are placed on the chessboard, does the real narrative reveals itself, and we are forced to do a double-take and retreat back through the pages to see what we missed - and when.!

I came to this through a back-handed compliment from another reader - and the premise intrigued me so much so that I read it in one sitting! definitely one for my espionage shelf!
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All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer is an espionage novel attempting to trace a hostage situation gone wrong. Mr. Steinhauer is a writer, TV show creator who has been nominated for several awards.

A terrorist group took over a hundred hostages in Vienna, Austria. The rescue attempt, however, went horribly wrong. Witnessing the tragedy, CIA’s Vienna branch believes the inside breach was someone in their office.

Case Officer Henry Pelham, investigating the night of the crisis, goes to Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, to relive the past with his ex-lover, Celia Harrison. Over dinner, Henry and Celia hash out their roles of a tragedy six years in the past.

I have enjoyed several of the author’s novels previously, so I was excited to read another one. All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer is an exercise in writing, an espionage story chiefly taking place over dinner. Certainly, a departure for the author.

I thought this was certainly an interesting approach to telling a story. Not the whole narrative takes place over dinner though. The story evolves through the eyes of the leading characters, until the surprising finally.

Unlike the other books, there really aren’t chases, secret drops, and last-minute rescues. Instead, the story-line unfolds, playing with memories and narratives which have been fogged up over several years.

Towards the ending, one needs to pay attention. I felt like Mr. Steinhauer decided to either end the story abruptly, or is missing a scene. The twist happens quickly, after a few lines (or line) attempting to misdirect the reader. If you were reading quickly, or tired, or didn’t pay close attention you probably missed it.

Furthermore, I felt, this was a disservice to the reader. While we certainly don’t need to be hit over the head with it, the twist could have been a bit more pronounced.

But again, that might have been the intent.
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This is about a man and a woman having dinner and discussing a terrorist incident five years ago when both were in the CIA. He still is, she may or may not be. Each suspects the other was the terrorist contact. It's a psychological dance and it keeps the reader guessing as to what the outcome will be.

I enjoyed this although it's not a fast paced or action driven spy novel. It comes together in a very satisfying way and is definitely worth sticking with.
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This was the first of Olen Steinhauser's books I've read.  It was a fast read, with the story told from multiple viewpoints. I liked that there was no overt violence in the book.  The characters were interesting and I found the plot line intriguing.  I liked the author's writing style and will try his other books.  I would recommend this book to fans of spy novels.
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(I received a free copy of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.)

Nine years ago, terrorists hijacked a plane in Vienna. Somehow, a rescue attempt staged from the inside went terribly wrong and everyone on board was killed.
Members of the CIA stationed in Vienna during that time were witness to this terrible tragedy, gathering intel from their sources during those tense hours, assimilating facts from the ground with a series of texts coming from one of their agents inside the plane. So when it all went wrong, the question had to be asked: Had their agent been compromised, and how?
Two of those agents, Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison, were lovers at the time, and in fact that was the last night they spent together. Until now. That night Celia decided she’d had enough; she left the agency, married and had children, and is living an ordinary life in the suburbs. Henry is still an analyst, and has traveled to California to see her one more time, to relive the past, maybe, or to put it behind him once and for all.
But neither of them can forget that long-ago question: Had their agent been compromised, and how? And each of them also wonders what role tonight’s dinner companion might have played in the way things unfolded.

*4.5 stars*

This is a seriously good piece of writing. Espionage/spy novels are a dime a dozen, so finding a really good one can be hard. Not only is this a very good story, it is told from a completely different angle than most: two agents, former lovers, meet for dinner and talk about a case that left them with more questions than answers. Told from both points of view in a series of "flashbacks", this clever and intelligent thriller is right up there with some of the best I have read.

The best part about this book (and, indeed, all spy novels for me) is the sense of paranoia involved in the Intelligence community. And while reading the narratives from both Henry and Celia, they tend to overlap - but both stories aren't quite the same...leaving the reader to feel a little of that paranoia about who is telling the truth...and why the other is lying...

One of the better spy thrillers I have ever read. Definitely highly recommended!

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