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All the Old Knives


All the Old Knives

ALL THE OLD KNIVES, as author Olen Steinhauer hastens to tell the reader in his Acknowledgments, was inspired during his viewing of the “Masterpiece” adaptation of the poem “The Song of Lunch” by Christopher Reid. Comparisons with the film My Dinner with Andre arguably might be appropriate as well, given that the bulk of the book takes place almost entirely in a restaurant, over dinner, with a number of flashbacks occasionally backing and filling the narrative of what occurred six years previously. While it won’t make you forget the Tourist series or Steinhauer’s recent THE CAIRO AFFAIR, it certainly contains a number of his trademark twists and turns that will keep you guessing throughout the narrative.

The dinner takes place in the book’s present of 2012, and is between Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison, who have a shared history. They were CIA case officers in Vienna from 2003 to 2006 and lovers for about a year. Their meeting after some six years takes place at Henry’s instigation at an all-but-deserted restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, where Celia resides with her husband and young children. Henry represents himself as happening to be in the area on agency business, but his purpose is somewhat more nefarious.

"What kept me reading --- in addition to [Steinhauer's] subtle, addicting narrative --- was the 'why' behind what happened in 2006, and what is unfolding in the present between Henry and Celia."

A terrorist incident in Vienna in 2006 resulted in the death of over a hundred people and led to Celia’s almost immediate resignation from the CIA, as well as the end of her relationship with Henry. The matter has been reopened, and it appears that the terrorist act was successful, at least in part, due to a compromise in intelligence at the Vienna station. Henry has been investigating the thin trail of duplicity that followed the incident, and Celia is the last on his list of people to interrogate. However, he must be very careful not to make their dinner conversation seem like an interrogation. Celia may be out of the life but, as it is slowly revealed, retains a core instinct and savviness that served her well during her years with the Agency.

The narrative switches points of view between Henry and Celia, and also jumps back and forth between the book’s present and past, utilizing the faux European pretentiousness of the upper crust restaurant where the former lovers are dining as a backdrop. An additional interesting element is that Henry is not completely over his relationship with Celia, and his feelings are not entirely unrequited. The emotional tension between them provides some seasoning for the conversational parrying and thrusting as the truth surrounding the tragic event in Vienna is finally and fully revealed.

It is not difficult to guess how ALL THE OLD KNIVES ends. Steinhauer gives things away (at least for me) about halfway through the story. What kept me reading --- in addition to his subtle, addicting narrative --- was the “why” behind what happened in 2006, and what is unfolding in the present between Henry and Celia. The book is short enough to be read in one sitting, even if you start it in the evening, and is certainly worth staying up past your normal lights out for just a bit to see why things shake out as you think they will.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 26, 2015

All the Old Knives
by Olen Steinhauer

  • Publication Date: November 3, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 1250045436
  • ISBN-13: 9781250045430