Booked Up

A World Full of Spies

The Cairo Affair is a masterfully plotted espionage novel.

By - Apr 17th, 2014 02:31 pm
The Cairo Affair

The Cairo Affair

No one would recommend getting your information about world affairs from fiction, but after you read Olen Steinhauer’s new spy novel, The Cairo Affair, you may believe the real truth is buried in stories. I am not usually a fan of contemporary espionage tales, but this engrossing novel may convert me. My previous forays into the grey world of black ops were in the Cold War era of Ian Fleming’s 007 and John le Carre. Things have changed and not for the better!

Steinhauer is the best-selling author of eight previous books, including the popular Tourist trilogy. The Cairo Affair is a stand-alone book that’s the perfect entry into the dark and disturbing underworld of spies and double crosses. If you think there’s a dearth of conflict post-Soviet Union, you would be wrong. Steinhauer’s strength is probing the volcanos of anger percolating under the surface of so many countries.

Crisscrossing the globe from Egypt to Budapest to the former Yugoslavia, The Cairo Affair is simultaneously a lesson in spying and a primer on world conflicts. You may be horrified by some of the things done in the name of our country, but you may finish this novel more thankful that you weren’t born somewhere else! Evil and government corruption are equal opportunity diseases and permeate countries both large and small. The fact that the CIA, NSA, and FBI have tendrils that have been exposed in the last few years makes this fiction more believable and timely.

Sophie Kohl and her diplomat husband, Emmett, are at the center of a web of deceit that draws governmental agents from several countries into its tragic center. Steinhauer is a master of believable detail and his story of betrayal and courage is told in a flat, matter-of-fact tone that seems almost journalistic. The Kohls involve a rogues’ gallery of operatives and innocents in a conspiracy that takes the very last page to fully unravel.

The characters are drawn with careful detail by Steinhauer. He is adept at giving the good, the bad, and the guilty even treatment. This succeeds in deepening the mystery and keeps us guessing about the real alliances and motivations up to the end. I will tell you that one of the characters, John Calhoun, a security contractor for the CIA is featured in an e-story available on Steinhauer’s website. It takes place before this novel begins, so his fate is not revealed.

The Arab Spring uprisings, the Egyptian revolution, and the Libyan conflict figure prominently in the action of this book, but you needn’t study up to follow what’s happening. In fact, Steinhauer succeeds in elucidating these complex situations in ways that helped me truly understand them for the first time. By putting human faces on these conflicts, Steinhauer helps them resonate with human drama and promise.

The Cairo Affair reminds us of how simple, personal choices have repercussions that may reverberate for years. The actions of a few can cause sorrow for many and live on after they have moved on. The espionage genre has a lot to say about our own guilt in supporting programs that change the course of countries and their citizens. And we are constantly reminded that the men and women who carry out the wishes of these governments are just doing a job, no matter how distasteful.

The Cairo Affair is masterful in its complex weaving of cause and effect. When we try to force our will on others, often without their knowledge, bad things happen. Sometimes, people make mistakes in their lives that they can’t undo. Together, these truths give this novel a power that is both haunting and cautionary.


Upcoming Book Events:

Friday, April 18 (7:00 PM): “Redletter Reading” by Matt Cook, followed by Open Mic at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. $2-$3 admission. (414) 263-5001

Saturday, April 19 (2:00 PM): Lois Ehlert, author of The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Tuesday, April 22 (7:00 PM): Brian Freeman, author of The Cold Nowhere: A Jonathan Stride Novel at Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, April 23 (6:00 PM): Stuart Gibbs, author of Poached at the Oak Creek Library, located at 8620 S. Howell Avenue in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Fun for ages 8 and up. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, April 23 (7:00-9:00 PM): “WOMEN’S SPEAKER SERIES”: Ann Peters, author of House Hold at Lynden Sculpture Garden. $30/$25 members – includes an autographed copy of House Hold, refreshments and admission to the sculpture garden. Come early and stroll around the grounds. 2145 West Brown Deer Road. For more information and to register, cheek here

Thursday, April 24 (7:00 PM): Amy Wolitzer, author of The Interestings at Boswell Book Company.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at  And good reading!


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