Counter-terrorism and espionage meet My Dinner with André. Well, actually “The Song of Lunch” which Olen Steinhauer saw in a film with Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. It inspired him to consider whether he could write an espionage novel that happens with a man and woman over the course of a meal. It turns out he can, more or less, and the product of this experiment is All the Old Knives. There are narrative jumps into backstory that are not at the table, but are very much part of the dinner conversation.
All the Old Knives bring two former lovers, Henry Pelham and Celia Favreau, back together over dinner. Celia has left the Agency and Henry is investigating an old incident they were both involved in, a hijacking in Vienna that resulted in the death of more than 120 men, women, and children murdered by a four terrorists. What with one thing and another (not telling) it is clear that someone in their office was in contact with the terrorists. Henry needs to determine if Celia was the traitor and decide her fate. There are no tribunals.
This is a good espionage thriller. As a mystery, it is also a good read, with fair story-telling mixed with lots of misdirection. What do you expect? They’re spies which means they are unreliable narrators, flawed and calculating. What you see is not what you get. I liked Steinhauer’s ambition and the scenes that are in the restaurant, that are part of his conceit are the most powerful. The narrative gets a bit off the mark when we get their backstories. Celia seems off, with a hatred for her boss’s wife that is too stark, too involved, and too judgmental. Her boss’s wife seems a caricature. So does Celia’s husband, Drew. Celia’s hectoring on motherhood is also a bit off, as in protesting too much.
If you like espionage or if you like Olen Steinhauer, you should read this. It does not achieve quite what Steinhauer wanted. He has to leave the table from time to time, but it is suspenseful and draws the reader in. I do not find it as effective as The Tourist, for example. Perhaps it is Henry’s broken-down exhaustion or Celia’s smug mama grizzly routine, but I did not care that much about the characters. I found Henry somewhat more real and credible than Celia, but I think they both suffered from being part of an experiment instead of a naturally evolving narrative.