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The Cairo Affair

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Sophie Kohl is living a nightmare. Minutes after she confesses to her husband, a mid-level American diplomat in ...

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The Cairo Affair

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Sophie Kohl is living a nightmare. Minutes after she confesses to her husband, a mid-level American diplomat in Hungary, that she had an affair while they were in Cairo, he is shot and killed.

Stan Bertolli, a Cairo-based CIA agent, has fielded his share of midnight calls. But his heart skips a beat when, this time, he hears the voice of the only woman he ever truly loved ask why her husband has been assassinated.

Omar Halawi has worked in Egyptian intelligence for years, and he knows how to play the game. But the murder of a diplomat in Hungary has ripples all the way to Cairo, and Omar must follow the fallout wherever it leads.

As these players converge on Cairo, Olen Steinhauer masterfully unveils a portrait of a marriage, a jigsaw puzzle of loyalty and betrayal, against a dangerous world of political games where allegiances are never clear and outcomes are never guaranteed.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Janet Maslin
…[an] elaborate, sophisticated spy tale, a long, twisty road full of cleverly placed potholes and unexpected turns.
Publishers Weekly
Like luxury watchmaker Franck Muller, Olen Steinhauer is the espionage “Master of Complications.” The Cairo Affair is an elegant, elaborate clockwork of mystery and deception that should draw readers in and keep them on tenterhooks as they try to figure out what is really making it all tick. It opens in the bowels of CIA headquarters during the Arab Spring. A Libyan-American analyst thinks he sees his previously rejected secret plan to overthrow Gadhafi going operational. But why and how? And who’s behind it? Then in a restaurant in Budapest, American diplomat Emmett Kohl is gunned down by a hit man in front of wife, Sophie, just seconds after informing her that he knows all about her affair with a CIA agent last year when they were stationed in Cairo. What can the connection be? In the thick of Arab revolutions, the action toggles from the streets of Cairo to the Libyan Desert to Budapest. Then back in time to 1991, when Emmett and Sophie honeymooned in wartime Yugoslavia. There they met Zora, the mysterious Serbian spymistress, who now has her tentacles around everyone. Steinhauer seduces with the web of falsehoods that the characters spin, in their desperate attempts to stay alive. Nothing is as it seems. “Who trusts anyone these days?” asks the Cairo CIA bureau chief. “Don’t take it personally. In a situation like this, everything should be examined, and if you’re missing some crucial piece of information, it’s best to assume you don’t know anything.” This is also good advice for the reader. It is how this writer keeps us turning the pages. Steinhauer is often compared to John le Carré. But the comparison does not adequately serve either author. (Is there an homage to le Carré here? No fan of the master could forget his first post-cold-war novel The Night Manager—a doomed affair set in Cairo, with a woman named Sophie. Can this possibly be a coincidence?) Le Carré’s books are driven by insoluble moral quandaries. What’s more, with his breathtaking insight and economy, le Carré draws his characters from the inside out, making us feel the awful weight of their existential burdens. Steinhauer does make references to the inner lives of his characters, but to this reader they remain superficial—like tweets about their emotions sent from an iPhone. What Steinhauer’s writing delivers is adrenalin. The Cairo Affair is the Olympics of Deception. Steinhauer’s characters are gold medalists of lying. Watching them deceive one another and themselves is riveting. Whose lies will finally be at the bottom of this dizzying clockwork of interconnected deceits? By the time you reach the end of the book and find out, you will be exhausted and satisfied with the journey. But you will see that the novel is like a Franck Muller watch, a construct of beauty—but metallic and cold. No matter. One marvels at the intricacy of its imagination and the elegance of its maker’s craftsmanship. Agent: Stephanie Cabot, Gernert Company. (Mar.) Glenn Kaplan is the author of Poison Pill and Evil, Inc., a New York Times bestseller (both Tor/Forge).
Kirkus Reviews
In the new novel by the well-traveled Steinhauer (An American Spy, 2012, etc.), the death of an American diplomat in Hungary sets wheels spinning across North Africa. Sophie Kohl hasn't been the best of wives. But when her husband, Emmett, is shot in a Budapest restaurant, her reaction is swift and visceral. Instead of flying his body home to Boston, she bolts to Cairo, the scene of diplomat Emmett's last posting. There, she seeks help from her former lover, Stan Bertolli, in unraveling the drama that led to Emmett's end. Opinion is mixed. Emmett's colleague and Stan's boss, Harry Wolcott, thinks the dead agent sold out his country to Zora Balaševic, who has dirt on him from the youth he misspent among disaffected Serbians in Novi Sad. Stan has more faith in the deceased rival for Sophie's affections. He helps her track down Jibril Aziz, a CIA analyst from Langley who recently appeared in Cairo asking for escort into Libya. The creator of Stumbler, a long-dormant blueprint for the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi, Aziz is convinced that someone has revived his plan at the worst possible moment: just as the Libyans stand poised to rid themselves of the dictator. As the Egyptians cope with their own version of the Arab Spring, more contestants vie for the Betrayal of the Month prize, and the body count climbs. In the end, it's a question of which will win out: misguided nationalism or plain old greed. Could easily dispense with a third of the pages in this le Carré wannabe.
From the Publisher
"One of the hottest names in spy fiction today . . . Entertaining."—USA Today

"Elaborate, sophisticated . . . A long, twisty road full of cleverly placed potholes and unexpected turns . . . Mr. Steinhauer draws his spies as flesh-and-blood characters in whom his readers invest both attention and emotion."—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"Perfect."—The Saturday Evening Post

"A stunning stand-alone that is as emotionally rich as it is layered with intrigue . . . It has become de rigeur to compare Steinhauer to le Carre, but it's nearly time to pass the torch: for the next generation, it's Steinhauer who will become the standard by which others are measured."—Booklist (starred review, Best Books)

“A genuine page turner—cleverly conceived and intricately plotted. Steinhauer juggles political and personal loyalties with a master storyteller's sleight of hand.”—Joseph Kanon

The Cairo Affair is the espionage novel at its best, packed with betrayals, double-crosses, hidden agendas, moral conflicts, international relations, and even a delectable double-entendre of a title.”—Chris Pavone

More Praise for Olen Steinhauer:

“Not since le Carré has a writer so vividly evoked the multilayered, multifaceted, deeply paranoid world of espionage, in which identities and allegiances are malleable and ever shifting, the mirrors of loyalty and betrayal reflecting one another to infinity.”—The New York Times

“This ambitious, complex story spans the globe. Even when the intricacies of its plot are most challenging, we are fascinated and swept forward…Olen Steinhauer’s Milo Weaver novels are must-reads for lovers of the genre.”—The Washington Post

“Stunning.”—USA Today

“Excellent.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Dazzling.”—Booklist (starred review)

“One of the best.”—Kirkus (starred review)

“Mesmerizing.”Library Journal

Library Journal
Married for 20 years, Emmett and Sophie are a U.S. foreign service couple stationed in Budapest. But when Emmett is shot and killed while dining cozily with Sophie, she flies alone under the radar in a quest to root out his assassin. Early steps take her to Cairo, where old, grievous errors emerge to obstruct her. Tracked by zealous agents from a bewildering array of espionage services, Sophie finds an unlikely ally or two, gleans clues from WikiLeaks, and displays more guts than sense, yet her destiny cannot be averted. She must face a harrowing confrontation with her past. In narrative arcs that vault between a 1991 honeymoon trip to Serbia and a few days in 2011, Steinhauer once again displays his mastery of complex and twisty storytelling. The author of The Tourist and An American Spy excels in the genre of modern espionage fiction because his work resonates with today's headlines, horrors, and fiascos. VERDICT Readers yearning for a fiendishly complex plot, penetrating characterizations, and a new warrior in the ancient struggle between anomie and truth will welcome Sophie and her brash courage. [See Prepub Alert, 9/16/13.]—Barbara Conaty, Falls Church, VA
The Barnes & Noble Review

Olen Steinhauer has published nine novels since 2003 with not a dud among them. The first five make up a superbly grim series set from 1948 to the end of the (first) Cold War in a fictional Eastern Bloc country. The next three constitute a complex sequence that follows the international operations and missteps of a tiny, ultra-secret CIA unit. Now comes The Cairo Affair, as intricate a novel of espionage and multi- pronged betrayal as ever exercised a reader's powers of analysis. Here the action takes place chiefly in the Middle East during the Arab Spring of 2011, with tentacles of plot reaching back twenty years to the commission of a sordid and violent act during the Bosnian War.

If the novel has a main character, it is Sophie Kohl, wife — and almost immediately widow — of Emmett Kohl, an American deputy consul in Hungary in 2011. She is having lunch in a Budapest restaurant with her husband when he tells her that he has learned of the affair she had back in Cairo, where they had been stationed two years previously. His source, says Emmett, is none other than the man she carried on with, Stan Bertolli. He is a CIA agent who, Emmett also reveals, had accused him, Emmett, of being a spy at the time. The Kohls have hardly had time to begin discussing these unfortunate matters when a Russian Mafia? style goon steps up to their table and shoots Emmett, clearly carrying out a hit. But for whom? And why? Sophie's conscience suggests that the answer lies in back in Cairo, and even further back in Croatia.

Sophie's sense of guilt meshes with her longing for action, and she eludes American embassy staff and secretly returns to Cairo. There she finds a Middle East tumultuous with protest and violence. It is the first week of March, 2011: Tunisia's government has been overthrown; Egypt has boiled up; Hosni Mubarak has resigned, and the country is being governed by the military. But it is the situation in Libya, where the government of Muammar Gaddafi looks increasingly precarious, that is of particular interest — to Sophie and to an increasing number of other players in this beautifully complicated tale.

Chief among those whose fates we follow is Jibril Aziz, a Libyan exile whose father was killed by Gaddafi. Now an American citizen working for the CIA, Aziz is intent on bringing an end to Gaddafi's criminal regime. A couple of years previously he had devised a plan for just this, one that would have involved the assistance of the U.S., which in turn had nixed it. But where once he had hoped for U.S. involvement, Aziz is now afraid that the plan has been activated and the Americans are bent on co-opting the present and powerful domestic movement. More to the point, as Sophie knows, Aziz had met with Emmett shortly before the latter was murdered. Why? She means to find out.

The ensuing tale pays the highest compliment to the reader's intelligence and its unfolding, dramatic and terrifying, proceeds by interleaving and rehashing the same events from the vantage points of a number of characters. In addition to Sophie's view, which is in part shaped by misinformation, there are those of Stan, her old lover; of John Calhoun, a CIA contractor; and of Omar Halawi, a member of the Egyptian Central Security Forces, who, as RAINMAN, is also a CIA source. Each perspective offers only a partial view, many of them complete misapprehensions. Steinhauer deploys the tactic with remarkable facility, wrong-footing his characters and readers with diabolical skill. But as he does, he also weaves in the true thread, its strands coming together at various junctures to produce sharp thrills of comprehension, usually of one or another act of betrayal.

Betrayal in all of its variety lies at the twisted heart of The Cairo Affair, and the character who embodies it most is Sophie, a far more complicated woman than one is accustomed to meet in the pages of an espionage thriller. She is torn between her identity as a well-educated American liberal with all the right ideas and a more untrammeled self, one with a craving for authentic experience. Her appetite for a realer, rawer, less civilized encounter with existence had first shown itself twenty years ago outside Vukovar in Croatia in the company of a chillingly seductive Serb, Zora Balašević. Now confronted with the possible consequences of her actions of that time, Sophie is appalled by how lethally real things can get.

Like all of Steinhauer's novels, The Cairo Affair is a sophisticated engagement with international tensions and power games as well as with the dysfunctional undercover organizations whose members are up to a good deal more than simply protecting and furthering national interests. Portrayed by Steinhauer, it is an arena where no one can see the whole picture, one in which paranoia has been elevated to a branch of epistemology. As one of his characters worriedly reflects, "It didn't matter how much he knew — what mattered was how much other people thought he knew." The deadly import of this truth infuses every page of this marvelous novel.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250036131
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 3/18/2014
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 108,049
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Olen Steinhauer

OLEN STEINHAUER, the New York Times bestselling author of eight previous novels, is a Dashiell Hammett Award winner, a two-time Edgar award finalist, and has also been shortlisted for the Anthony, the Macavity, the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and the Barry awards. His books include The Tourist, The Nearest Exit, and An American Spy. Raised in Virginia, he lives in New York and Budapest, Hungary.

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Read an Excerpt




Twenty years ago, before their trips became political, Sophie and Emmett honeymooned in Eastern Europe. Their parents questioned this choice, but Harvard had taught them to care about what happened on the other side of the planet, and from the TV rooms in their dorms they’d watched the crumbling of the USSR with the kind of excitement that hadn’t really been their due. They had watched with the erroneous feeling that they, along with Ronald Reagan, had chipped away at the foundations of the corrupt Soviet monolith. By the time they married in 1991, both only twenty-two, it felt like time for a victory lap.

Unlike Emmett, Sophie had never been to Europe, and she’d longed to see those Left Bank Paris cafés she’d read so much about. “But this is where history’s happening,” Emmett told her. “It’s the less traveled road.” From early on in their relationship, Sophie had learned that life was more interesting when she took on Emmett’s enthusiasms, so she didn’t bother resisting.

They waited until September to avoid the August tourist crush, gingerly beginning their trip with four days in Vienna, that arid city of wedding-cake buildings and museums. Cool but polite Austrians filled the streets, heading down broad avenues and cobblestone walkways, all preoccupied by things more important than gawking American tourists. Dutifully, Sophie lugged her Lonely Planet as they visited the Stephansdom and Hofburg, the Kunsthalle, and the cafés Central and Sacher, Emmett talking of Graham Greene and the filming of The Third Man, which he’d apparently researched just before their trip. “Can you imagine how this place looked just after the war?” he asked at the Sacher on their final Viennese afternoon. He was clutching a foot-tall beer, gazing out the café window. “They were decimated. Living like rats. Disease and starvation.”

As she looked out at shining BMWs and Mercedeses crawling past the imposing rear of the State Opera House, she couldn’t imagine this at all, and she wondered—not for the first time—if she was lacking in the kind of imagination that her husband took for granted. Enthusiasm and imagination. She measured him with a long look. Boyish face and round, hazel eyes. A lock of hair splashed across his forehead. Beautiful, she thought as she fingered her still unfamiliar wedding band. This was the man she was going to spend the rest of her life with.

He turned from the window, shaking his head, then caught sight of her face. “Hey. What’s wrong?”

She wiped away tears, smiling, then gripped his fingers so tightly that her wedding ring pinched the soft skin of her finger. She pulled him closer and whispered, “Let’s go back to the room.”

He paid the bill, fumbling with Austrian marks. Enthusiasm, imagination, and commitment—these were the qualities she most loved in Emmett Kohl, because they were the very things she felt she lacked. Harvard had taught her to question everything, and she had taken up that challenge, growing aptly disillusioned by both left and right, so uncommitted to either that when Emmett began his minilectures on history or foreign relations, she just sat and listened, less in awe of his facts than in awe of his belief. It struck her that this was what adulthood was about—belief. What did Sophie believe in? She wasn’t sure. Compared to him, she was only half an adult. With him, she hoped, she might grow into something better.

While among historical artifacts and exotic languages she always felt inferior to her new husband, in bed their roles were reversed, so whenever the insecurity overcame her she would draw him there. Emmett, delighted to be used this way, never thought to wonder at the timing of her sexual urges. He was beautiful and smart but woefully inexperienced, whereas she had learned the etiquette of the sheets from a drummer in a punk band, a French history teacher’s assistant, and, over the space of a single experimental weekend, a girlfriend from Virginia who had come to visit her in Boston.

So when they returned to their hotel room, hand in hand, and she helped him out of his clothes and let him watch, fingertips rattling against the bedspread, as she stripped, she felt whole again. She was the girl who believed in nothing, giving a little show for the boy who believed in everything. Yet by the time they were tangled together beneath the sheets, flesh against flesh, she realized that she was wrong. She did believe in something. She believed in Emmett Kohl.

The next morning they boarded the train to Prague, and not even the filthy car with the broken, stinking toilet deterred her. Instead, it filled her with the illusion that they were engaged in real travel, cutting-edge travel. “This is what the rest of the world looks like,” Emmett said with a smile as he surveyed the morose, nervous Czechs clutching bags stuffed with contraband cigarettes, alcohol, and other luxuries marked for resale back home. When, at the border, the guards removed an old woman and two young men who quietly watched the train leave them behind, Sophie was filled with feelings of authenticity.

She told herself to keep her eyes and ears open. She told herself to absorb it all.

The dilapidated fairy-tale architecture of Prague buoyed them, and they drank fifty-cent beers in underground taverns lit with candles. Sophie tried to put words to her excitement, the magnitude of a small-town girl ending up here, of all places. She was the child of a Virginia lumber merchant, her travels limited to the height and breadth of the East Coast, and now she was an educated woman, married, wandering the Eastern Bloc. This dislocation stunned her when she thought about it, yet when she tried to explain it to her husband her words felt inadequate. Emmett had always been the verbal one, and when he smiled and held her hand and told her he understood she wondered if he was patronizing her. “Stick with me, kid,” he said in his best Bogart.

On their third day, he bought her a miniature bust of Lenin, and they laughed about it as they walked the crowded Charles Bridge between statues of Czech kings looking down on them in the stagnant summer heat. They were a little drunk, giggling about the Lenin in her hand. She rocked it back and forth and used it the way a ventriloquist would. Emmett’s face got very pink under the sun—years later, she would remember that.

Then there was the boy.

He appeared out of nowhere, seven or eight years old, emerging from between all the other anonymous tourists, silent at Sophie’s elbow. Suddenly, he had her Lenin in his hands. He was so quick. He bolted around legs and past an artist dabbing at an easel to the edge of the bridge, and Sophie feared he was going to leap over. Emmett started moving toward the boy, and then they saw the bust again, over the boy’s head. He hurtled it into the air—it rose and fell.

“Little shit,” Emmett muttered, and when Sophie caught up to him and looked down at the river, there was no sign of her little Lenin. The boy was gone. Afterward, on the walk back to the hotel, she was overcome by the feeling that she and Emmett were being made fools of. It followed her the rest of the trip, on to Budapest and during their unexpected excursion to Yugoslavia, and even after they returned to Boston. Twenty years later, she still hadn’t been able to shake that feeling.


Copyright © 2014 by Third State, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 18, 2014

    A gripping thriller with surprises at every turn of a page. The

    A gripping thriller with surprises at every turn of a page. The narration follows different characters through different periods of time to allow readers to assemble the pieces of the puzzle in their minds. As the drama unfolds the whole world of post cold-war espionage is laid bare, with deception, betrayal and death in every corner. The characters are well-developed and believable. They resonate with the reader and create a high level of emotional involvement. The issues are all resolved by the end of the novel, but the questions and answers continue to provoke thought long after the book has been read. I highly recommend this book. It sustains interest and excitement through every page.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2014

    The author's best

    Simply superb. Subtle like the best spy thrillers. Wonderful dialog and fully developed characters, who are the subjects of the novel and not cardboard placeholders. Spy stories this good are all too few.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 9, 2014

    Spy thriller re: the Arab Spring (Egypt, Libya), the CIA, foreig

    Spy thriller re: the Arab Spring (Egypt, Libya), the CIA, foreign intelligence, spies, opportunists, mercenaries. Really well written, not just in the plot which mirrors reality, but in the hows, whys, and who-is-who. Read carefully as there are many characters and the time moves around. But each encounter has a clue to the overall outcome. There are layers and layers and players and players. As the story comes together in the end, there are surprises and aha moments. This is so much better than most 'spy thrillers' what are just plot and action. This one makes you really think about how all this spy stuff really works. And how real spies actually survive. It's a scary world. 

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 22, 2014

    very, very boring, loved the Authors books, up to this point. Ma

    very, very boring, loved the Authors books, up to this point. Made it about 1/2 way, and gave up, wish i had the $12.99 back, wasted $.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2014

    Picked up The Tourist several years back at an airport bookstore

    Picked up The Tourist several years back at an airport bookstore, and ever since have been an Olen Steinhauer fan.  So much so that I have gone back and read all the books he has written to date.  His most recent, The Cairo Affair, didn't disappoint.  Can't wait for the next one! 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2014

    Intriguing plot, well-developed characters and interesting locat

    Intriguing plot, well-developed characters and interesting locations.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2014

    From Sonny, to everyone

    If you have ever bought a book, you have made a big mistake! Don't buy books! No book is worth your $0 or more! DO NOT EVER BUY BOOKS! e-books and free books included! They are worse than TV and video games!

    1 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 24, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Life in the espionage world is never what it seems to be. And t

    Life in the espionage world is never what it seems to be. And that is certainly the case in this superb spy novel which follows the excellent Milo Weaver trilogy which ended with “The Tourist.” This story begins in Virginia, at CIA headquarters, where a Libyan-American analyst convinces himself that an old plan, called Stumbler, which he had devised years before, but was shelved, to overthrow the dictator, Muammar Gadhafi, was apparently being implemented.

    However, the main thrust of the plot involves the machinations of the various intelligence services: the CIA, Egyptian and, of course, Libyan. The main characters include an American diplomatic couple, various agents of the intelligence services, and of course, the analyst who travels to Egypt to enter Libya and contact his underground network to boost the plan.

    The author has created a magnificently intriguing plot, filled with an inside look on how intelligence is gathered and disseminated. His portrayal of the various characters leaves the reader with substantial insight into the motivations, including both patriotism and greed, of those involved in spy craft. In his examination of why the various participants act as they do, he not only delves deeply into their psyches, but looks profoundly at the moral issues. Don’t let the length of the novel put you off. It reads swiftly and enjoyably, and is highly recommended.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2014

    Spy thrillers

    The spy thriller is back. Excellent book.

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  • Posted April 22, 2014

    One of the best!

    What an outstanding and intriguing book. I loved it and sat with my huge National Geographic Atlas open to page 66 so that I could fully comprehend the travels and exploits of each character. The twists and turns of each character's deceptions and motives were so cleverly developed and intertwined. I will now go and read Steinhauer's earlier books.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2014

    Thought it was just me

    Missing pod cobtents todsy and yesterday limited access to boks and reviews and search is barnes and noble in trouble? Mom

    0 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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