Olen Steinhauer openly acknowledges Christopher Reid's poem "The Song of Lunch" — or rather the PBS Masterpiece dramatization of it — as inspiration for his latest spy puzzler. The TV version centers on two former lovers, played by Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, having a boozy lunch 15 years after their love affair ended. Fueling the drama is the unnamed man's regretful memories over the end of the affair and bitterness, not the least of which stems from his complicity as a lowly editor at a publishing house that churns moronic manuscripts into art while his former love has gone on to marry a successful novelist.
In "All the Old Knives," Henry Pelham is the bitter party of one, a CIA operative in the agency's Vienna outpost. He's on his way to Carmel-by-the-Sea to have dinner with Celia Favreau, née Harrison, his former lover and colleague. Henry's animus isn't just over Celia's abrupt departure from the agency and his bed. He's also painfully aware that the world has changed, that one doesn't know who the bad guys are anymore. It's so much simpler in the Len Deighton thriller being read by his female seatmate on his flight to San Francisco. Radical Islam, Henry yearns to tell her, is an elusive enemy.
Celia has left the intrigue of espionage for a retiring General Motors manager with no particular charm she'd met only four months before becoming engaged. Five years later, she's got two kids and an enviably quiet life in Carmel, where the town center "looks like a cinematic version of a quaint English village … the kind in which Miss Marple might find herself stumbling around, discovering corpses among the antiques."
It's a lifetime away from Vienna where Celia, Henry and other colleagues tried unsuccessfully to avert a disastrous airline hijacking at the Flughafen Wien. Six years later, intel from Amir Shishani, picked up during a raid in Afghanistan and held at Gitmo, suggests the terrorists responsible for more than a hundred passenger deaths on Flight 127 were aided by someone inside the U.S. Embassy. The possibility of a mole in the embassy and a public prosecution is an embarrassment Henry's boss believes the Vienna station (and ultimately the agency) can ill-afford.
So Henry has wangled the investigation away from a young CIA hotshot from Langley and for two months has been interviewing everyone in the embassy associated with the debacle — except his former lover Celia, the abruptly departed CIA analyst.
Henry insists on questioning Celia in person, so he will be able to tell if she's lying. And even though Henry's superiors in Vienna think he's still "holding a torch for that woman," they agree. Celia arranges an intimate reunion dinner at the aptly named Rendez-vous.
While at its core "All the Old Knives" is a poignant reunion between a couple who were once passionate lovers, it is also a tense cat-and-mouse game between skilled operatives. It would be a high crime to give away any more of the deliciously devious plot, but suffice it to say that interspersed among Henry's distracting erotic memories and Celia's prosaic tales of motherhood are some equally illuminating flashbacks to the politics of the Vienna Embassy, the harrowing hostage drama at the airport and a real-life Chechen Islamist siege of a Russian theater in 2002. Mixed with bits of seemingly unrelated incidents in the present that hover just on the periphery of the reader's consciousness, this brew packs a punch that's a lot more potent that the Chardonnay the martini-loving Henry is forced to drink in Carmel.
Although most of the action in "All the Old Knives," like "The Song of Lunch," occurs in a restaurant, Steinhauer expertly navigates on a much broader stage with an aplomb reminiscent of the best of Deighton and John Le Carré. Like those masters of the genre, Steinhauer manages to make the reader care desperately for his characters even as the realities of the spy game mock their every hope of happiness. And while Steinhauer has, over the past few novels, become adept at examining the consequences of spying on human relationships, in "All the Old Knives" he's upped the ante in ways that enrich the genre while providing a white-knuckle ride disguised as an innocent meal shared between old flames.
Woods is the author of four crime novels in the Charlotte Justice series.
All the Old Knives
By Olen Steinhauer
St. Martin's Press/Minotaur; 294 pages; $23.99