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Sister Mary Murderous

Favorite genres are traditional mystery, police procedurals, espionage, Eurocrime, literary fiction and nonfiction history, especially WW2 and Cold War.  I write about crime fiction at Read Me Deadly (www.readmedeadly.com)

Two spies walk into a restaurant . . .

All the Old Knives - Olen Steinhauer

Normally, you'd think that would be your classic espionage "meet," and the rest of the story would include things like following shadowy figures down foggy, dark European city streets, smoke-filled ops rooms at MI-6, dead drops, shootouts and car chases.  But not a one of those things happens here.  In fact all the book's action takes place in that restaurant and in flashbacks to an office in Vienna a few years earlier.  And yet, despite the limited scenes, characters and action, this is one of the most tautly thrilling espionage books I've read in years.


Henry and Celia were lovers and fellow CIA agents in Vienna when a terrorist hijacking went very wrong on the tarmac at the city's airport after their inside agent's identity was discovered by the terrorists.  Was the agent betrayed and, if so, how?  After that terrible tragedy, Celia left her old life, married, moved to the paradise of Carmel, California, and became a stay-at-home mother to two kids.  Now, Henry calls to say that he's in the area for a conference and would love to get together for dinner.


At the restaurant, they begin with that polite chit-chat of old colleagues and lovers; they talk about mutual friends and work acquaintances, Celia's kids and husband, the beauty of Carmel.  With each glass of wine (and there are many) and each bit of perfectly composed California cuisine, the talk becomes deeper and more intense.  They circle each other, looking for vulnerabilities that will bring out the truth of their old relationship and what really happened that terrible day in Vienna.  These old knives can still slice.


The story is told in the alternating voices of Henry and Celia. Is one of them an unreliable narrator?  Are both of them?  This is a quick read, but completely engrossing. I was gripping the book so hard I left indentations. When I reached the end, nearly everything Henry and Celia said now appeared in a different light. Highly recommended.


Note: I received a free advance copy of the book for review.