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All the Old Knives: A Novel by Olen Steinhauer
Hollywood has seen its share of spy stories turn into blockbuster spy films--consider Ian Fleming's incredibly popular James Bond franchise, multiple novels by John le CarrÃ©, the Bourne series based on Robert Ludlum's books, and now Hollywood has come a callin' for one of our Top 10 Books of March: Olen Steinhauer's All the Old Knives.
All the Old Knives unfolds over dinner at a restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea where Henry and Celia, ex-lovers and intelligence agents, play a cat and mouse game around what really happened five years before in Vienna. As the remembrances overlap with the present moment, tension mounts and questions of who did what to whom, and why, become increasingly urgent. By the last 100 pages Steinhauer's hook is firmly embedded and it's hard not to race to the finish. And the ending? I can sum it up in one word--brilliant.
So who are the spies that Olen Steinhauer admires? Below are his picks for the Top 5 best fictional spies.
As a writer of novels you get questions. "Pen or computer?" "Morning or night?" "Where do those stories come from?"
As a writer of espionage fiction, the questions get a little more sticky:
"Have you ever been a spy?"
"How many spies have you met?"
"What's the secret behind [insert conspiracy here]?"
I'm not going to answer those"”like anyone, I enjoy keeping my head safely on my shoulders"”so instead I'm reaching for a softball question that inevitably comes up when chatting with readers.
"Who are the best fictional spies?"
Now, I'm going to take "best" as a matter of taste rather than tradecraft. Would James Bond last long in the real world? Maybe Daniel Craig, but I'm doubtful about Roger Moore (blame the writers, not the actors). I'm also going to reach back in time a little bit, so maybe you'll discover a new name or two. You'll also notice that the four mentioned here are all produced in the UK"”that's not a swipe at American spy fiction"”these just happen to be the intelligence agents I reach for when I need a little boost. Were the list a little longer"¦but it's not.
David Callan: Let's start off with one of the roughest of the bunch. Beginning with A Magnum for Schneider, a 1967 teleplay by James Mitchell, starring the brooding Edward Woodward as Callan, a very reluctant hit man for British intelligence. That play led to four bleak and powerful seasons titled, appropriately enough, Callan. The thing about the show (1967 to 1972) is that it's one of the darkest things you're bound to find in the genre, and even its humor, personified by Russell Hunter's pitiful sidekick named Lonely, is the blackest of the black.
George Smiley: This is an obvious choice, but it's utterly unavoidable. He appears in eight of John le CarrÃ©'s novels, most notably in the book I still rank as espionage's finest: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Seen early on as an antidote to James Bond, Smiley eventually became a category unto himself. Depth of character? Check. Cunning? Check. Tradecraft? Check. Yes, he's one who could probably make it in the real world. And go see the original BBC miniseries of Tinker Tailor and Smiley's People if you haven't.
Neil Burnside: As the Director of Special Operations for MI-6, this icy kingmaker took viewers through the complex and fraught world of British espionage in The Sandbaggers, which lasted three impeccable seasons from 1978 to 1980. Not quite as bleak as Callan, The Sandbaggers still pulls no punches and, even on a shoestring British-seventies budget, puts most contemporary spy shows to shame. Sadly unknown on this side of the Atlantic, The Sandbaggers should be required viewing for fans of the genre. I return to it regularly.
John Drake: Before starring in the cult classic The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan became the highest-paid TV actor in part because of Danger Man. In two series (1960-1962 and 1964-1968), he played John Drake, an "Irish-American" NATO intelligence operative whose jobs take him all over the world. Smart scripts and a solidly moral character made this a stunning show that holds up remarkably well fifty years later. McGoohan, a staunch Catholic, made ground rules for his character: He never bedded a woman, and he would not kill people. Only occasionally would he produce a gun. What that meant was that, unlike a lot of TV spies, Drake had to use his brains to get himself out of trouble. What it meant for audiences was that they quickly grew to trust their leading man, week after week.