It’s a Mystery: “Memory: that place where personal recollections collide with history”
By Olen Steinhauer
By Vaughn Entwistle
Olen Steinhauer was last heard from vis-à-vis his widely acclaimed Milo Weaver trilogy. Introduced in The Tourist (2009), Milo is a midlevel desk spook in the CIA’s clandestine Department of Tourism in New York. He is “a reluctant spy,” more George Smiley than James Bond. He’s also a fascinating protagonist. He continued to navigate the twilight world of espionage in The Nearest Exit (2010) and finally in An American Spy (2012). All three brilliantly evoked that world with all its seedy trappings.
Now Steinhauer is back with The Cairo Affair, a spellbinding stand-alone novel. Its plot is as intricate as a vintage pocket watch. It’s a multilevel puzzle of conjecture and chance, which will astound and confound you to the very end.
It begins in February 2011, deep inside Langley, the CIA headquarters, during the Arab Spring. Jibril Aziz, a native Libyan, is a researcher in the Office of Collection Strategies and Analysis. When, in the course of three days, five politically active Libyan exiles vanish from four cosmopolitan venues, Jibril thinks he sees “Stumbler,” his previously rejected plan to overthrow Muammar Gadhafi, going operational. But why and how? Jibril is sent on the q.t. to find out:
…Jibril was walking on air. He was on the move again…unlike many of his colleagues, he’d cut his teeth by seducing foreign nationals into betraying their own countries. Once you’ve learned how to do that to people, you develop a taste for deception, and drab office walls, carpeted cubicle dividers, and pulsing computer monitors feel like a poor substitute for living. So does honesty.
But that’s just the tip of the intrigue. As one character wryly observes, “What Langley thinks is a drop in the ocean of history.”
Cut to March 2011 and a restaurant in Budapest where American diplomat Emmett Kohl is gunned down in front of his wife, Sophie. Seconds before, he revealed that he knows all about her affair with a CIA agent last year when they were stationed in Cairo. Is it connected to his murder? Is the newly widowed Sophie just another disloyal wife? Unlikely.
Back in 1991 when she and Emmett, fresh out of Harvard, honeymooned in Yugoslavia, they were both captivated by a sexy young Serbian woman:
…there was something hypnotic about this woman’s unabashed conviction…. There was no cynicism in this woman’s attitude, just the pure, untainted light of absolute knowledge. She understood everything, and nothing would ever get in the way of her worldview. It was seduction pure and simple: This woman seduced them with her long fingernails, her two-pack-a-day voice, her wrecked grammar, her sultry eyes, and the feeling that she was the last woman on earth who knew everything.
Her name, of course, was Zora. A name that sounded like something out of Buck Rogers.
Who is Zora really?
They all go their separate ways. In 2009 Zora turns up in Cairo and seduces Sophie all over again – this time into becoming a spy:
Sophie had been relaxing at the Arkadia Mall…. Zora appeared as if plucked from a dream, smiling and opening her arms, saying “Sofia,” in her dripping accent…. She had the uncanny ability of making elusive statements and giving Sophie a knowing look that suggested she was sharing a secret…. Eventually, Zora said, “Maybe you’d like to work with me now and then. I think you would like it.”
Sophie just shrugged, flattered that anyone thought her worthy of employment these days, and later, after she’d posed the idea two more times, Sophie finally said, “Of course, Zora. I’m yours.”
Zora is a spymistress extraordinaire. To Sophie’s peril, there are many in Zora’s lethal web of deceit.
Once Sophie starts following the trail of Emmett’s killer, we are in a world without boundaries. As the action moves back and forth from the perspective of a small number of key players, things are seldom—read never—what they seem. Steinhauer lures us into the labyrinth of lies and de rigueur betrayals that is the perfidious, double dealing world of espionage. As Steinhauer said elsewhere: “If it can be imagined, then someone’s already tried it.” The end game is as lethal as it is elusive. As a veteran spy puts it:
When you live in a house of mirrors, the only way to stay alive is to believe that every reflection is real. The downside is that this can cost you your sanity.
By the time you reach the conclusion of this dazzling, sophisticated spy tale you will come away with an unsettling feeling. The murky world of intelligence is inhabited by mere mortals who are Olympians of duplicity.
In far too many reviews, Olen Steinhauer is linked with John le Carré: “Not since,” “As good as,” “In the tradition of,” “Like,” etc. etc. etc. Mea culpa. And there is the echo of le Carré’s plot line in The Night Manager (1993)—a doomed affair set in Cairo, with a woman named Sophie. I call this subconscious homage. Olen Steinhauer is the real deal. Make no mistake, he is in a class by himself.
From the 21st-century world of Olen Steinhauer to the 19th-century world of Sherlock Holmes is not as farfetched as you might think. Consider Holmes’s famous maxim: “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” It brings to mind that lovely phrase for the world of intelligence, “the wilderness of mirrors.” This was coined by the CIA’s so-called Delphic Oracle, James Jesus Angleton. He, in turn, got it from T.S. Eliot’s poem Gerontion. This poem figures peripherally in The Cairo Affair and poetry, in general, plays a role in many spy novels. As a spymaster in Gerald Seymour’s The Dealer and the Dead (reviewed in my last column) says: “Reading poetry was another way of looking for secrets, of deciphering code.”
But I digress. Back to Sherlock Holmes, or rather Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The year is 1893 and the thirty-four year old Doyle has famously killed Holmes, chucking him off Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem. Thus the title of the second chapter of The Revenant of Thraxton Hall, “The Most Hated Man in London.” Wherever he goes, Doyle is subjected to verbal abuse and pelted with all manner of disgusting and often dangerous objects. He’s definitely not popular at the offices of The Strand Magazine, which owes its fortune to Doyle’s popular detective. He shows up there after a trying morning to be confronted with piles of hate mail. By 3:00 PM he seeks whisky and comfort at the Savoy, where fashionable London is dining.
The source of Doyle’s tensions is not only the self-inflicted backlash from the demise of his detective, but the summons he received that morning. It came from a woman, one Hope Thraxton, who claims to be a “spiritualist medium of some renown.” He has a chillingly creepy encounter with her at what he presumes to be her London residence. Their meeting takes place in almost total darkness, for the lady suffers from porphyria: the complete inability to tolerate light, plus mental disturbances such as seizures, hallucinations and paranoia. She asks him to solve a murder, hers, which will take place in the near future. The death will occur at the third séance of a meeting of the Society of Psychical Research at her manor house in the English countryside.
While tippling a triple shot of the “holy waters of Mother Scotland” with his friend J.M. Barrie, he is interrupted by less than dulcet tones:
“Ah, here is London’s most celebrated murderer!” The voice was loud, urbane and utterly unforgettable. Conan Doyle looked up at a large man dressed in a bottle-green cloth overcoat heavily trimmed with fur. The coat was worn thrown about his shoulders like a cape and splayed open to reveal a lemon yellow jacket with a white silk cravat. On his head he wore a black broad-brimmed hat pulled down rakishly over one eye.
Oscar Wilde—of course, who else would dress in such a fashion? He was accompanied by a slender young man…altogether too pretty to be a boy.… Rumors about Wilde flew on the wind these days, and this was obviously Oscar’s latest “companion.”
Wilde is at the height of his fame. The resounding success of Lady Windermere’s Fan the previous year has made him one of the wealthiest and most successful men of letters in London. At 39, he is two years away from being incarcerated for the “Love that dare not speak its name.” Jail will coincide with the appearance of The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s worth noting, given what has already transpired in The Revenant, that his newest play is A Woman of No Importance.
Wilde insists on whisking everyone off to a music hall to “witness the inexplicable.” This turns out to be a performance by Donald Dunglas Hume—conjurer extraordinaire. He is billed as “The greatest psychic medium in the world.” As they witness Hume’s performance, they remain blissfully unaware that it’s a portent of things to come.
The next day, Doyle receives an invitation from the Society for Psychical Research to attend a four day retreat at Thraxton Hall.
Your name has been proposed for membership…. Our organization has been founded to promote the scientific investigation of Spontaneous Phenomena such as hauntings, apparitions, mediumship, thought transference (or “telepathy”), and all forms of “psychic” manifestation.
Conan Doyle flushed with excitement. He had envisioned just such an organization himself: a body of sober, yet open-minded individuals dedicated to a rational, scientific study of the supernatural.
Two weeks later, Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, who wouldn’t have missed this for the world, are thundering north in the first-class carriage of a steam train. It promises to be a wild adventure (pun intended).
Thraxton Hall is a hideous gothic pile populated darkly (second intended pun) by ancient servants—most of them blind. Remember Hope Thraxton’s affliction.
To one side of the grand staircase, the servants of the house stood assembled in a line to greet them. In the dim light they resembled a collection of the rather less convincing effigies dragged from storage in a dusty corner of Madame Tussauds’ Waxworks.
…”Good Lord,” Wilde murmured sotto voce, “the house is five hundred years old and retains its original staff.”
The servants on display are nothing compared to the motley assortment of guests. All assemble for the series of séances, one of which will result in the current Lady Thraxton getting shot twice in the chest at close range. As Holmes would say—and does, as his ghostly presence keeps cropping up at Doyle’s side—
“The game is afoot my boy…. The question is—are you ready? Will you take up this challenge? Or will you turn away as a lesser man might?”
Doyle and Wilde are up for it. They intend to forestall the murder despite the certain danger involved. In the end they triumph but not before they encounter some pretty hairy, harrowing, otherworldly experiences.
This is Grand Guignol fun. Entwistle is an original who has assembled a delicious, extravagantly eccentric cast of characters. And it turns out The Revenant of Thraxton Hall is just the first adventure for Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. I, for one, can’t wait for the next installment.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.