Writing about Reading: The Cairo Affair

January 19, 2014 § 1 Comment

Okay, I just finished Olen Steinhauer’s brilliant new novel, The Cairo Affair, and I want to tell you about it, but first some good news: I am unstuck! I guess writing that blog post helped me break loose of the muck and get going again, because I’ve been working on the novel since the day after posting it.

And I’ve been reading, which always helps inspire me to write (and helps your brain). I recently finished Kill City Blues, the latest in the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey, and if you’re a fan of that series, you won’t be disappointed. I thought the last couple books in the series sagged a bit, but this one has Stark back in top form. I’m definitely interested to see what happens in the next one.

Halfway through Kill City Blues, I received an advanced review edition of The Cairo Affair in the mail. It was a fantastic surprise; I’d signed up to win it in a Facebook contest staged by the publisher, but thought it had gone to someone else. Opening the padded envelope and pulling out a Steinhauer novel that’s not due out for another two months was Christmas all over again. Seriously, I was giddy.

I raced through the back half of the Kadrey novel because it was too good to pause, and then I dove into Steinhauer’s book. I expected it to be fantastic, but it exceeded even my loftiest of hopes. It may be audacious to say this in January, but I imagine this will be the best book I’ll read in 2014. (The only contender to beat it is The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, which I haven’t read yet even though it came out last year.)

The Cairo Affair is set in 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring. Sophie Kohl, wife of U.S. diplomat Emmett Kohl, witnesses her husband’s brutal murder as she sits across from him at a restaurant table in Budapest. One moment, he is telling her that he knows she had an affair when they were stationed in Cairo; the next, he is dead. When she sets out to learn why her husband was killed, she begins unraveling an elaborate coverup that takes her back to Cairo and puts her life in jeopardy.

The Cairo Affair is a jigsaw puzzle of a spy thriller, masterfully assembled before your eyes by a virtuoso storyteller. I can state with almost certainty that this will be a movie, and if done right it will be amazing—but no matter how perfectly they pull it off, it won’t hold a candle to the book. There’s just too much between the covers for it all to be captured on film. (Unless they do it as a mini-series, perhaps, but even then I think they’d have to make cuts.)

Most books, if you’re lucky, give you one jaw-dropping moment you absolutely did not see coming. The Cairo Affair gave me three moments like that. The author also paints a picture of Cairo so vivid I could smell and taste it, and then he puts characters in it so real, I became invested in each and every one—even the ones I didn’t particularly like. Their are no Bond villains here; no one is evil for evil’s sake. There are also no Bond heroes; none of Steinhauer’s spies are flawless secret agents. The players are all living, breathing humans, with human aches and pains, human weaknesses, human hopes, and human desires. I understood, and even empathized with, why they did what they did. And that is one of the things that makes this book so damned hard to put down.

The Cairo Affair grabbed me from the start and didn’t let go until the last page. In fact, it still has a hold of me right now, hours after I finished it. Even the climax, which might have seemed ridiculous in the hands of a less skilled writer, fits perfectly into the puzzle Steinhauer constructs.

In short, it’s one hell of a book. I’m just sorry you have to wait another two months to get your hands on it.

Dave Borcherding

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