Two American spies—one retired, one active—dance around what really happened five years earlier during a mission gone horribly wrong.
In this masterfully plotted and suspenseful stand-alone, Steinhauer (The Cairo Affair, 2014, etc.) pieces together the details of an event the CIA refers to only as Flughafen (after the German word for airport). Four Islamist extremists, members of the Aslim Taslam group, hijacked a plane at the Vienna airport, and, despite the presence of a low-level operative onboard—a pure coincidence—the takeover ended in tragedy. Five years later, Agent Henry Pelham is conducting an internal investigation (code name "Frankler") into the role the CIA's Vienna office, where he was stationed at the time, played in the events of Flughafen. Complicating an already dicey situation is the fact that his main target is former flame Celia Harrison, who left the agency immediately after the Austrian debacle and moved to California, where she married an older man and had two children. Now Henry and Celia meet for dinner in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a town as innocuous as their conversation is serious. Steinhauer expertly shifts perspectives between the two spies in both their present and past lives, when Henry was a rough-and-tumble field agent and Celia wielded power behind a desk.
It's an understatement to say that nothing is as it seems, but even readers well-versed in espionage fiction will be pleasantly surprised by Steinhauer's plot twists and double backs.