I am reposting 2014 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $2.99 (Today only).
Summary: Information is money (and/or power). But it is the people that really keep and break security.
Olen Steinhauer is probably my favorite spy novelist right now. Steinhauer is almost always compared to John le Carre‘. But I did not pick up my first le Carre’ novel until after I had read the first two of Steinhauer’s Tourist trilogy.
Steinhauer and le Carre’ are writing in the same subgenre of spy novels. They are detailed, more about the slow burn of uncovering details than the action (although there is action).
The Cairo Affair is broadly about Sophie Kohl, the wife of a diplomat. Just minutes after she confesses to her husband that she has had an affair, a man walks up to them at dinner and murders her husband right in front of her.
The murder of Sophie’s husband is then at the center of what may be an attempt to overthrow the government of Libya (this is set in 2011 before the fall of Gaddafi). The question is who is behind the attempt and why was her husband murdered. Working separately, Jibril Aziz, a CIA analyst and former field agent, is trying to figure out who has put the plan he wrote for the overthrow of Libya into action.
This is not a book that really has a central character. The story unfolds from a variety of perspectives with a number of scenes told from multiple perspectives. I really like this as a method, especially in a spy novel. The heart of spy novels is always information. And no one has all of the information.
That being said, we seem to have a problem with spy novels right now. Bad Americans are almost always the enemy, which have to be countered by good Americans. This story is more complicated than that. But it uses that same trope to distract the reader (and really the characters). When a genre has such a standard narrative that its own books start using it as a distraction, the genre is in trouble. Which is why I think historical spy novels (like those by Alan Furst) are in such vogue.
One of the strengths of the Cairo Affair is that other than one scene, it is set entirely outside the US. Many of the characters are US citizens; but while the US is a major player in the world, it is not the omnipotent power. There are concerns that are more important than just what the US thinks, at least to those outside the US.
On the whole, I did not like this as much as the Tourist Trilogy, primarily because it did not have a central character like Milo Weaver that gave the book a moral compass and someone to root for. Jibril Aziz was the closest to that, but Steinhauer centered the book more around Sophie Kohl, who is clearly not a person that has a moral compass. (Or at least she is a person with a complicated moral compass that is not completely working.)
I did enjoy The Cairo Affair, it shows the complicated world we live in. It is well written, especially the way it slowly unfolds. But it is a hard book to love because there are so few lovable characters.
The Publisher provided me with an Advance Reader Copy through Amazon Vine for purposes of review.
Other Bookwi.se Reviewed Spy Novels
- An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer
- The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré
- Spycatcher by Matthew Dunn
- The Cry of the Halidon by Robert Ludlum
- Once a Spy by Keith Thomson
- Twice a Spy by Keith Thomson
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
- The Honorable Schoolboy by John le Carré
- Smiley’s People by John le Carré
- A Murder of Quality by John le Carré
- Call for the Dead by John le Carré