Friday Reads: All the Old Knives

This month the FPL Fiction Book Club read an espionage novel entitled All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer. This is the fifth espionage novel we have read in a six-month series that began with Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and will end next month with Swimmer by Joakim Zander. One of the first questions, which I was not able to answer the day we discussed the book, was where does the title come from? We all knew about the idea of someone stabbing you in the back, but not about the old knives part. So, after a little investigation, I discovered that in fact this is a quotation by Phædrus from his Fables. It is translated as: “All the old knives that have rusted in my back, I drive in yours.” (By the way, Phædrus also gave us “to add insult to injury.”) Another quotation related question was what was “that old Stalin quote about tragedies and statistics” that is mentioned in the book. That quotation is attributed to Stalin and it is: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

The most interesting thing to me, as the one person who attends both the Wednesday evening group and the Thursday morning group, was how radically different the two groups responded to the same book! The Wednesday evening group LOVED the book, and the Thursday morning group thought the author (who said it took him just a month to write the novel) should have done at least one more rewrite!

The plot is extraordinarily timely as it involves two CIA officers in Vienna, Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison, who were lovers at the time of a hostage crisis. Celia leaves the CIA and ends up in Carmel-by-the-Sea and Henry has tracked her down to see her one more time, to relive the past, maybe, or to put it behind him once and for all. Most of the novel takes place at a dinner at a restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea and the point of view switches between Henry and Celia. The author had the idea of setting this thriller at a restaurant after he watched the Masterpiece dramatization of Christopher Reid’s poem The Song of Lunch, which starred Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. As he writes in the introduction to the book: “I wondered if I could write an espionage tale that took place entirely around a restaurant table.”

The people that loved the book, loved the pacing, and the story, and the fact that it was a quick read. The people who loathed the book thought there wasn’t enough story, the changing of point of view was too confusing, the character of Celia was unbelievable, and the prose wasn’t engaging enough. EVERYONE agreed that the ending was superb!! This novel is soon to be a major motion picture, so we are all waiting to see how the movie will differ from the novel.

The next meeting of the FPL Fiction Book Club will be March 15th at 7:00 PM or March 16th at 10:00 AM. The book we will be discussing is Swimmer by Joakim Zander, and you can pick up a copy at the Reference Desk.

 

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