Murky, shadowy, paranoid and misinformed: all can be used to describe the world of intelligence and spies.
Such perils haunt the characters in The Cairo Affair, the latest international thriller by Olen Steinhauer. Emmett Kohl, an American diplomat, and his wife, Sophie, have just moved to Budapest after a stint in Cairo. Set in early 2011, during the Arab Spring that toppled the governments in Tunisia and Egypt, the story gets off to a fast start when Emmett is murdered in a restaurant in Budapest.
Sophie, who has just admitted to an adulterous affair in Cairo after her husband accuses her of infidelity, looks on in horror as a stranger walks up to Emmett and shoots him. Diplomats and spies close in, comforting Sophie, questioning her, and trying to shoo her back to the US for the funeral and, they hope, nothing more.
Frustrated and angry, as well as suspicious of everyone’s motives, Sophie soon sneaks back to Cairo, hoping to piece together what led to her husband’s death.
This is just one choice of Sophie’s that comes with the highest of stakes. She, and each reader, will feel the collective weight of two more pivotal moments over the course of Steinhauer’s novel – and it is a tribute to his skillful work that, in each case, the aftermath includes a psychological hangover.
The Kohls, married 20 years, harbored secrets from a most unusual honeymoon in the Balkans in 1991. At the time, they were Americans with little to no knowledge of life in Europe or anywhere else and Emmett wanted to embark on adventures in different cultures. Sophie, for her part, was fine with tagging along to make her new husband happy.
Repercussions from their honeymoon, told in flashback snippets, take on greater meaning while Sophie navigates Cairo in search of answers. To begin the search for her husband’s killer, and a motive, she calls on her former lover, a world-weary CIA agent still stationed in Egypt.
Slivers of an abandoned plot coup in Libya, stumbled upon by Sophie, bring her into the orbit of the CIA at Langley headquarters and in Cairo. Egyptian spies become intrigued, too, and, as always, even when people are on the same side, they often have ulterior motives and competing agendas. And all too often, nobody knows what’s going on – even (and especially) when they think they do.
Or, as the Cairo CIA station chief Harry Wolcott puts it, “Intelligence is a pseudoscience, like astrology. Sometimes the outcome seems to prove that your methods and techniques are infallible. Other times, it proves the exact opposite. Don’t beat yourself up over it. And trust me: The last thing you want is to get to know the corpses you’ve left behind.”
What makes Steinhauer’s books so effective is the combination of dubious government behavior and memorable characters. (His trilogy starring Milo Weaver, the most reluctant of reluctant spies, put Steinhauer on bestseller lists.) Sophie is brave, mercurial, and occasionally impulsive. She could be any wife of a midlevel government worker stationed overseas: comfortable but bored.
John Calhoun, an African-American expat in Cairo, a mercenary, ponders the messiness of his vagabond existence, his absentee-parenting and favorite lines from Langston Hughes, T.S. Eliot and E.E. Cummings. Several lines from Hughes — “God in His infinite wisdom/ Did not make me very wise —/ So when my actions are stupid/ They hardly take God by surprise” — pop into John’s head as he painfully starts another round of personal inventory.
When the CIA chief in Cairo visits John at his apartment and stares at the volumes of poetry, John waves off any possible surprise.
“It gets old, people being shocked by your literacy,” he says.
Then there is Zora, a Serbian who not so coincidentally re-enters the lives of the Kohls in Cairo. She is an absolutist, fond of twisting threads of history into her own tapestry of righteous resentment. And she seduces the young American couple when they first meet in a disco during the Kohls’ impromptu visit to Novi Sad.
Later, Sophie thinks while speaking to Zora, “Being with someone so convinced of the rightness of her actions was a little intoxicating, and Sophie felt the buzz again.”
Left to make sense of the disparate Americans and Zora in Cairo is 60-year-old Omar Halawi.
Omar has already missed out in a bid to lead his intelligence department, foiled by a colleague named Ali Busiri from a rival division. Busiri ascended on the strength of his ties to Hosni Mubarak’s administration.
“Cronyism had given Ali Busiri [the top intelligence job], but what else had he expected?” Steinhauer writes, voicing Omar’s thoughts. “Omar, in the end, was a realist, a flaw that [his wife] often pointed out to him.”
Steinhauer, too, traffics in realpolitik. Combined with spot-on characters and smooth plotting, his novels, including this one, favor what feels like messy authenticity over Hollywood-style Bond adventures.
In other words, expect plenty of murk, shadows and paranoia. And revel in the fact that these quandaries are someone else’s, not yours.
Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.