The Cairo Affair
Olen Steinhauer writes espionage novels that cause readers to fall in love with the genre all over again. He gives us extremely smart books, often based on recent real-world events, which are almost impossible to read without picturing the author winking and pulling back a curtain while saying, “Now...here is what really happened. For THE CAIRO AFFAIR, Steinhauer’s subject matter is the overthrow of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi and what occurred in the immediate aftermath of that event, along with the consequences --- intended and otherwise --- of ill-considered actions.
THE CAIRO AFFAIR is both the title of Steinhauer’s latest work, a stand-alone novel, and a double entendre for much of what occurs within. One most immediately associates it with the revelations presented in Part I of the book, “A Disloyal Wife.” The spouse of the piece is Sophie Kohl, (disloyal) wife of Emmett, who is a mid-level diplomat at the American embassy in Hungary. The couple is having dinner in a favorite restaurant when Emmett confronts Sophie with the accusation that she had a tryst the year previously with Stan Bertolli, a second-generation CIA agent who is stationed in Cairo. Sophie admits the affair; a few minutes later, Emmett is assassinated in the middle of dinner. Bertolli is stunned yet pleased when Sophie flees Hungary to join him in Cairo, though her agenda is to determine why her husband was killed.
"A CAIRO AFFAIR is dark, brilliant material from an author who, within a relatively short period of time, has been heralded as a grandmaster of the espionage genre, and for good reason."
Meanwhile, Emmett’s assassination is causing problems far beyond Hungary. Omar Halawi, a veteran Egyptian intelligence officer well-schooled in the practice of quid pro quo, finds that Emmett’s death is circling back to his office. Halawi is one of the more complex characters in a novel full of them, a man who tries to keep his soul and compassion even as he plays a dirty game. A CIA intelligence analyst named Jibril Aziz plays a pivotal role in the proceedings. Aziz, who has significant ties to the Libyan opposition movement, had devised a covert operation known as “Stumbler” several years before, the aim of which was to overthrow Gadhafi. It had been summarily rejected by the CIA, yet it now appears that someone --- possibly within the United States government --- is putting it into play. A major question is why Aziz had met with Emmett shortly before his death and if that meeting had anything to do with his subsequent demise.
As the narrative shifts among these characters and others, only one thing is certain, at least at first: everyone is lying. Falsehood bounces off of falsehood and careens into another falsehood; people are lying even when they do not need to or, worse, when they should not, practically until the end of the story. And there is a price to be paid: Don’t get too attached to any particular character; Steinhauer has no reservations about taking people off the board, suddenly and with finality. One simply never knows what will happen next.
A CAIRO AFFAIR is dark, brilliant material from an author who, within a relatively short period of time, has been heralded as a grandmaster of the espionage genre, and for good reason. Steinhauer does make demands of his readers; the complex plot requires attention, even as he proves to be a trustworthy guide through the labyrinth. Patient readers will be rewarded in abundance.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 21, 2014