“The Cairo Affair” differs from a lot of espionage novels in that the good guys, if they win at all, don’t win cleanly. Perhaps that’s why the story feels more real, more plausible, than the tales in which the retired operative is called back to duty to save the world though those can be enjoyable reads.
At the center of “The Cairo Affair” is a sexual affair that Stephanie Kohl, who’s married to a mid-level diplomat named Emmett, had with one of Emmett’s colleagues in Cairo when Emmett was stationed there.
The story, however, begins at a dinner table in a Hungarian restaurant where, as Stephanie is confessing her affair, Emmett is executed.
Guilt-ridden as well as in grief and shock, Stephanie doesn’t return to the United States for Emmett’s burial. Instead, she goes back to Cairo to try to find out what led to the hit on her husband.
Most of the story takes place in 2011, the year of the Libyan civil war, an event quite pertinent to the plot. Among the central figures is Jibril Aziz, a Libyan national whose father was one of Moamar Gadhafi’s countless victims and who, working with the CIA, wants to help foster insurrection.
His covert plan is called Stumbler, and it matters because Jibril met with Emmett a couple of days before Emmett was executed and before Jibril returned to Libya.
Other intriguing characters include Stan Bertolli, with whom Stephanie had a prolonged affair, and Zora Balasevic, a mysterious Serbian woman whom Emmett and Stephanie met as newlyweds in 1991 when they — mostly Emmett —were curious about the conflict in the Balkans. Zora becomes a spy first for Serbia and then for Egypt,
Other central characters are John Calhoun, a private contractor with a variety of skills who works for the United States in Cairo; and Omar Halawi, an Egyptian security officer who, if life were fair, would be in charge of his office but who instead is juggling competing demands while trying to survive Egypt’s own revolution.
Back in Hungary is another curious individual, the detective investing the hit on Emmett and who stays connected with Stephanie by phone.
All of these characters and others work with and against one another on a variety of issues.
Egyptians spy on Americans, Americans tail Egyptians and everyone seems to wonder what will happen in Libya. To some of the characters, Emmett’s death is a side issue.
To others, it’s a focal point. When Stephanie was having her affair with Stan, she didn’t know he following her husband because Stan was certain Emmett was feeding U.S. secrets to the Egyptians through Zora. Suffice it to say that Zora was feeding secrets to the Egyptians, but she didn’t get her information from Emmett.
In short, there’s a lot more to “The Cairo Affair” than Stephanie’s affair with Stan. All of the characters are playing a game, some more artfully than others, and Emmett isn’t the only one for whom it turns deadly.
The author, Olen Steinhauer, has written one of those books that shouldn’t end.
It was difficult to lose contact with Omar Halawi and his wonderful, fretful wife, and John Calhoun, the hired gun who is and a lousy husband and a caring, if distant father who finds himself teaching English to Egyptian women who hope their husband’s are among the leaders in the new Egypt.
“The Cairo Affair” is a first class story. It doesn’t have a lot of chase scenes or firefights, but it’s filled with real people in situations in an environment that grows more intense with each page.
The author knows his craft. Steinhauer is a two-time Edgar Award finalist and has been shortlisted for a series of other honors, including the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger.
He splits his time between New York and Budapest.