The Cairo Affair
Olen Steinhauer. Minotaur, $26.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-03613-1
Like luxury watchmaker Franck Muller, Olen Steinhauer is the espionage “Master of Complications.” The Cairo Affair is an elegant, elaborate clockwork of mystery and deception that should draw readers in and keep them on tenterhooks as they try to figure out what is really making it all tick. It opens in the bowels of CIA headquarters during the Arab Spring. A Libyan-American analyst thinks he sees his previously rejected secret plan to overthrow Gadhafi going operational. But why and how? And who’s behind it? Then in a restaurant in Budapest, American diplomat Emmett Kohl is gunned down by a hit man in front of wife, Sophie, just seconds after informing her that he knows all about her affair with a CIA agent last year when they were stationed in Cairo. What can the connection be? In the thick of Arab revolutions, the action toggles from the streets of Cairo to the Libyan Desert to Budapest. Then back in time to 1991, when Emmett and Sophie honeymooned in wartime Yugoslavia. There they met Zora, the mysterious Serbian spymistress, who now has her tentacles around everyone. Steinhauer seduces with the web of falsehoods that the characters spin, in their desperate attempts to stay alive. Nothing is as it seems. “Who trusts anyone these days?” asks the Cairo CIA bureau chief. “Don’t take it personally. In a situation like this, everything should be examined, and if you’re missing some crucial piece of information, it’s best to assume you don’t know anything.” This is also good advice for the reader. It is how this writer keeps us turning the pages. Steinhauer is often compared to John le Carré. But the comparison does not adequately serve either author. (Is there an homage to le Carré here? No fan of the master could forget his first post-cold-war novel The Night Manager—a doomed affair set in Cairo, with a woman named Sophie. Can this possibly be a coincidence?) Le Carré’s books are driven by insoluble moral quandaries. What’s more, with his breathtaking insight and economy, le Carré draws his characters from the inside out, making us feel the awful weight of their existential burdens. Steinhauer does make references to the inner lives of his characters, but to this reader they remain superficial—like tweets about their emotions sent from an iPhone. What Steinhauer’s writing delivers is adrenalin. The Cairo Affair is the Olympics of Deception. Steinhauer’s characters are gold medalists of lying. Watching them deceive one another and themselves is riveting. Whose lies will finally be at the bottom of this dizzying clockwork of interconnected deceits? By the time you reach the end of the book and find out, you will be exhausted and satisfied with the journey. But you will see that the novel is like a Franck Muller watch, a construct of beauty—but metallic and cold. No matter. One marvels at the intricacy of its imagination and the elegance of its maker’s craftsmanship. Agent: Stephanie Cabot, Gernert Company. (Mar.) Glenn Kaplan is the author of Poison Pill and Evil, Inc., a New York Times bestseller (both Tor/Forge).
Reviewed on: 01/06/2014