Labyrinthine plots are expected in spy novels. For many authors and readers there is the mentality that the more intricate the narrative, the better. In All the Old Knives, author Olen Steinhauer navigates the twists and turns of his story by examining the relationship of two former lovers who worked for the CIA. The book’s intricacy is derived from the characters’ intimacy. Told from each ex-lover’s point of view, the tale is laced with introspections. Since spies are masters of deceit, there is a question of credibility concerning their respective reflections and recollections. Professional lies trickle down into their personal lives and the two protagonists know it. And so does the reader. Such intriguing overtones and undercurrents are abundant in this splendidly absorbing tale.
Five years after breaking up with Henry, Celia agrees to meet with him for dinner in Carmel-by-the-Sea in California, where she now resides. Henry is still employed by the Agency, but Celia abruptly abandoned the shadowy world of espionage for the conventional security of domesticity. She resides in a town renowned for its picturesque tranquility. Jaundiced Henry sardonically distills the area: “I’m in the middle of an idealized vision of a seaside village, rather than the real thing. An image of an image, which is the perfect place to live if you want to be something other than you once were.” He and Celia became a couple while both worked at the American Embassy in Vienna. His cover story for meeting with her is Company-related business in a nearby city; it would be nice to get together and reminisce. Henry later tells her that he is participating in an Internal Affairs investigation of a horrific debacle: a hauntingly devastating event which occurred shortly before Celia abandoned him and the CIA. It is imperative for Henry to find out what she knows and how to interpret her actions. And since he is obsessively still in love with her, the inherent tension of their reunion is partially sexual. He recalls the glory of her anatomy, with special reverence for an ankle. Given the erotic flashbacks, the meaning of “internal affairs” could have a carnal connotation.
For her part, Celia has embraced domesticity. She tells Henry that love for one’s children supersedes any other kind of love. He is appalled by the sentiment, but it gives him a rationalization to distance himself from Celia. He thinks “From international intrigue to diapers. From governmental secrets to Barney. From dangerous streets to private-school admissions. Is this really the woman who directed my dreams for the last half decade?” By putting himself in a dismissive mindset, Henry is psychologically readying himself for a denouement that will be arduous to execute. He needs to be in control.
Throughout the course of the lengthy gourmet meal Henry and Celia toy with each other, alternating who is the cat and who is the mouse. Their sexual intimacy has taught them specific ways to turn the screw on one another. However, standing too close can blur the vision and depth of feeling can obfuscate rational thought. As Henry noted after chatting with an airline passenger who shared his destination, “Perhaps it’s only those who don’t know us at all who are able to see us most clearly. Perhaps strangers are our best friends.”
All the Old Knives is a spy novel that I read twice. The first time, a few years ago, I was impressed by Olen Steinhauer’s stylistic creativity. In the book’s introduction he states that the inspiration/springboard for the setting was a TV production starring Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. It was set exclusively at a restaurant table. Steinhauer challenged himself to work primarily with the restrictive environs but decided to widen the scope to give the characters some literary mobility outside of the confined reunion surroundings. My recent reading of the book made me more aware of the complexity of creating plausible narrators when the reader knows the characters’ careers rely on lying: There’s a brilliance in the balancing of illusion and allusion. Even knowing the plot, the tension was sustained. A film version starring Chris Pine and Thandiwe (formerly Thandie) Newton, as well as the always appealing Jonathan Pryce and Laurence Fishburne, is reportedly in post-production. I hope it does justice to this riveting spy novel.