Fresh Meat: The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

The Cairo Affair by Olen SteinhauerThe Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer is a contemporary novel of espionage and geopolitics, unraveling the dangerous relationships between a diplomat who's just been assassinated, his unfaithful wife, her ex-lover in Egyptian intelligence, and a CIA analyst (available March 18, 2014).

Note: Read on to the end for a special audiobook excerpt from Chapter 1!

With each release in Olen Steinhauer’s popular Milo Weaver series, the chorus of both critics and fans proclaiming Steinhauer to be the heir apparent to John le Carré has grown louder and louder. Though not a precise comparison—Steinhauer’s energy and pacing is more feisty and raucous than that of the plaintive le Carré—the hype, if a little premature, is not unwarranted. There is an undeniable intelligence and sense of perspective in the Milo Weaver books to make one think that Steinhauer has the potential to reach that exalted realm.

The Cairo Affair, Steinhauer’s first standalone novel, represents an emphatic step toward fulfilling that promise. Not so much a thriller as it is a mystery, the novel showcases Steinhauer’s ability to write complex, textured characters, each with their own set of individual histories and psychological motivations. While The Cairo Affair has more than enough intrigue, double-crosses, and grisly murders to satisfy fans of the genre, it’s Steinhauer’s ability to crawl into the heads of his diverse cast of characters that elevates his writing.

The story is set in motion by the abrupt assassination of American diplomat Emmett Kohl in Budapest. The diplomat’s wife, Sophie, decides to investigate the murder herself after she begins to doubt the trustworthiness of both the Hungarian and American authorities. She also has reason to fear that something in her past may have caused Emmett’s death. Believing that the answers can be found in her their previous diplomatic posting, Sophie returns to Cairo, where the bulk of the story is set.

In Cairo, we are introduced to a broad set of players that make up this ensemble piece. Sophie may get top billing, but that is only by order of appearance. Several characters are given equal time, as many events are replayed from different points of view. Other featured characters include Egyptian intelligence officers Omar Halawi and Ali Busiri, CIA operatives Stan Bertolli, Jibril Aziz and John Calhoun, and a shadowy Serbian spy, Zora Balasevic.

Sophie uncovers evidence that Emmitt’s death may have something to do with a CIA program called Stumbler, whose aim is to overthrow the Libyan government from within. As one would expect, though, nothing is as it seems at first, second, or even third glance. Covering seventeen years and two continents, Steinhauer uses real life events such as The Arab Spring and the Serb-Croat War to give his fictional story an air of authenticity.

There are two potential problems with The Cairo Affair’s structure, though I found only one to be an issue, and a minor one at that. Prior to the realization—about a third of the way through the book—that this is truly an ensemble piece, I kept trying  to identify and latch onto a primary protagonist. As the focus shifted from character to character, a sense of unease crept in that the story might be a bit unmoored. But once it became clear that there wasn’t one protagonist, but many, I found myself on solid ground, and stayed there the rest of the way. Of course, this is a matter of expectations, as well; a reader with advanced warning of the book’s construction might not experience this sensation at all.

Some might find that the retelling of events from different perspectives slows the momentum of the story, especially if this device was just a narrative trick, or a means to conduct individual character studies without advancing the plot. But that’s not the case here. Each time the events are retold, another crucial piece of information is gleaned, and we move closer and closer to the truth.

The tone of Steinhauer’s clear prose changes ever so slightly to match each character’s psychological state, like this passage when a young Sophie Kohl hears a story of a Croatian atrocity:

Sophie looked at him. After what she’d heard from Zora, Emmett’s casual assessment—they weren’t very nice—seemed unbearably diplomatic. They’d listened to the same stories, and while they had provoked a banal statement from Emmett, Sophie felt like finding a long knife and carving their initials into the faces of those Croatian fascists. The desire was refreshing, as if it were the first real conviction she’d felt in her life.

Compare Sophie’s sense of outrage to veteran Egyptian spy Omar Halawi’s world-weary resignation:

What could he say to such rational thought? This woman, like anyone outside of the intelligence services, believed that intelligence organizations worked by machine logic, and that this was their flaw. Their flaw was that they didn’t work by machine logic. They worked by human logic, which was as frail and emotional as the people who filled the agencies of the world. The best he could offer was hardly an example of perfect logic: ‘Mistakes were made.’

This passage also explains what differentiates Steinhauer from your average spy novelist. It’s a given in the genre that there will be deception, that someone will be a double agent, that secrets will be divulged. But too often, authors offer no satisfactory explanations as to why this is the case other than, “its just what spies do.” One never has to ask why in The Cairo Affair. Almost every character is hiding their true agenda, but Steinhauer makes sure their motivations for doing so are as compelling as they are varied. Steinhauer, like le Carré, knows that an enduring spy story doesn’t depend on the brilliance of its spies, but on the flaws of those spies as human beings.

Hooked yet? Try this bonus excerpt from Chapter 1 of the audiobook version of The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer! 


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Court Haslett is the author of Tenderloin, a crime novel set in 1970's San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @courthaslett and at The Rogue Reader.