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'The Cairo Affair' by Olen Steinhauer:

Brilliant mystery
courtesy of Minotaur Books

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer


No heroes. No villains. Maybe one sorta' good guy. Maybe not. No protagonist. No true love. Just spying and lying and deceit and cruelty -- and puzzles and enigmas and no one to trust. With good reason.

None of the characters in Olen Steinhauer's new mystery novel, "The Cairo Affair," knows truth from fiction. That's because they are all spies, either professional or amateur, either willing or unwilling. They lie for a living and they live only lies.

So they cheat and deceive from beginning to end, leaving the reader in the same puzzling mass of mazes as the characters themselves.

Even the title of the novel is intentionally and brilliantly ambiguous. One of the important characters is the wife of a mid-level embassy employee who at least appears to be relatively honest and honorable. But he is shot and killed as the two are having lunch -- a very awkward lunch because right before the murder, the wife, Sophie, has just admitted to a recent affair with her husband Emmett's co-worker at the American Embassy in Cairo.

She spends the rest of the novel trying to track down his killer, but she is involved in her own dark web of intrigue. And as the novel unwinds, all the shady characters try desperately to figure out why Emmett was murdered and who ordered the assassination.

But that's only half the mystery. The other big question -- the other whole "affair" -- is whether Emmett had leaked important information about an attempted coup to overthrow the soon-to-be-deposed Libyan despot, Moammar Gadhafi. But who would be planning such a coup? And why try to overthrow Gadhafi when his own people are already rising up against him?

Confused? You are supposed to be.

"The Cairo Affair" is a superb demonstration of form reflecting meaning. Between flashbacks and present-time events and between actions and ideas representing the confused states of mind and points of view of amoral characters who can't see truth even if it punches them -- or shoots them -- in the face, the reader is left at sea.

It does all end with some suggestion of justice and revenge and even a degree of satisfaction. But in this novel, those things, too, are fleeting and illusory.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Minotaur, for review purposes.

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