All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

In the acknowledgements for All the Old Knives Steinhauer reveals that the seed for this story was planted by the desire to see if it was possible to write a spy novel that takes place entirely around a restaurant table.

He admits that he doesn’t quite succeed, most of the novel actually takes place in flashback form tales told by the two people sitting around the table, and the beginning of the novel has Henry travelling to the restaurant, but it’s an interesting concept.

It’s a format that television drama does quite well and has done so for many years. Off the top of my head I can think of one or two examples from Star Trek: Deep Space 9 where shared histories, but differing viewpoints are discussed between two characters over the course of forty minutes.

Monologues, things like Alan Bennett – or even the episode of EastEnders that solely focused on Dot Branning – are other examples that show you can tell fascinating stories with a simple set-up.

But those all work in a visual format with a (hopefully) talented actor bringing them to life. Does the same work in a book?

To be honest, once I got to the acknowledgements and discovered that this was what he was trying to do, the novel made more sense.

The chapters are all told in the first person, so although the parts that aren’t around the restaurant table are technically Henry or Celia’s retelling of certain events, they don’t feel it. They feel like a novel told in the first person.

Any book from the first person viewpoint could be said to take place in the one location, the one time, an old man in front of a fire (yes I’m thinking of John Hurt in the Storyteller) delving into the past to tell a tale. What I’m trying to say is that the ‘flashbacks’ don’t make feel like I’m on the other side of the table to Henry listening to him telling me something. They just feel like any other book.

Perhaps it would have worked slightly better if the ‘present day’ sections around the table were told in the third person, so that the shift from third to first did feel more like a dialogue, however, it still doesn’t get past the fact that the flashbacks feel like the reader is being transported away from the conversation around the table.

I’m being picky, because I actually liked the story, however, one other constraint of the format is that in a tale of two protagonists at a table, one of them investigating the possibility of a spy amongst their ranks, there isn’t going to be much of a twist. One of them has to be the good guy, the other has to be the bad guy.

 

If All the Old Knives was a rollercoaster, it would be like one of the rickety wooden ones at the Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Still exciting, still fun, lots of ups and downs, but no twists – just a rather large turn at the end.

Speaking of the end… it felt to me fairly signposted, from around the time the waitress brings the two characters their main course.

It could be that the reason for this is because I’ve been on so many rollercoasters, I’ve become a bit of an expert in their rhythms and surprises.

There will be people who read this and don’t see what’s coming, but if you’re a seasoned veteran of thrillers, this will be just something to pass the time while you wait for the queue at the Big Dipper to die down.

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