Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer - Book Review

From the publisher: Sophie Kohl is living her worst nightmare. Minutes after she confesses to her husband, a mid-level diplomat at the American embassy in Hungary, that she had an affair while they were in Cairo, he is shot in the head and killed.

Stan Bertolli, a Cairo-based CIA agent, has fielded his share of midnight calls. But his heart skips a beat when he hears the voice of the only woman he ever truly loved, calling to ask why her husband has been assassinated.

Omar Halawi has worked in Egyptian intelligence for years, and he knows how to play the game. Foreign agents pass him occasional information, he returns the favor, and everyone's happy. But the murder of a diplomat in Hungary has ripples all the way to Cairo, and Omar must follow the fall-out wherever it leads.

American analyst Jibril Aziz knows more about Stumbler, a covert operation rejected by the CIA, than anyone. So when it appears someone else has obtained a copy of the blueprints, Jibril alone knows the danger it represents.

As these players converge in Cairo in The Cairo Affair, Olen Steinhauer's masterful manipulations slowly unveil a portrait of a marriage, a jigsaw puzzle of loyalty and betrayal, against a dangerous world of political games where allegiances are never clear and outcomes are never guaranteed.

Olen Steinhauer, the author of the Tourist trilogy, has another winner on his hands with The Cairo Affair.  This is a haunting and engaging story, in the tradition of the best of John LeCarre's work.  As the publisher's blurb states, there are four primary characters: Sophie Kohl, the wife of a U.S. diplomat; Stan Bertolli, a CIA agent based in Cairo; Omar Halawi, an Egyptian intelligence agent; and Jibril Aziz, a CIA analyst who's idea for a project called Stumbler sets everything in motion.  I would add one other character to the mix: John Calhoun, a contractor for the CIA, working in Egypt.

Using these five characters, Steinhauer weaves a story of betrayal and intrigue set during the Arab Spring, mostly in Cairo, Egypt.  He alternates his point-of-view characters, sometimes covering the same events from different view points.  This is a very effective technique, as it allows the reader fresh eyes and a new perspective on events.  Steinhauer's prose is never rushed, always moving along steadily, like a train heading towards it's inevitable end.  As the revelations are steadily doled out, the outcome becomes clearer, and the reader is left wondering how Steinhauer will tie everything together.  The answer? Successfully. Nothing seems forced, there are no cheats, and everything is explained.

This is not an action-packed book, nor is it a happy one.  A sense of sadness and loss permeates the story, with the consequences of spying very apparent.  It reminds me of the early Smiley stories by John LeCarre.

I enjoyed the setting of Cairo, as it was different from many of the spy novels I've read.  The setting was also very topical, set as it was against the background of the Libyan uprising.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Cairo Affair.  I would highly recommend it to fans of spy novels, particularly John LeCarre.

I received a preview copy of the book from St. Martin's Press in exchange for an honest review.

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