Dear Partners in thought,
As we are in mid-summer, I wanted to go back to novels but still keeping the international affairs feel to these book notes, I decided to go the spy novel route. One of the best spy novelists today in my book (pun intended) is American author Daniel Silva who since 1996 has nearly written a book a year, the last 18 focusing on Gabriel Allon, the now legendary Israeli “Office” agent (read Mossad). DS publishes his book every year in mid-July and just released “The Other Woman”, which is the 18th book of the Allon series. To me DS is the new, though less with an axe to grind, great John Le Carré to whom he resembles greatly in his ability to project the world of intelligence, mixing strategy, tactics, atmosphere, tradecraft, services interactions and indeed sheer action, the latter which is always a by-product of the story and not its main focus (in other words, the Allon series is for the thinking man and woman, who “also like” some action along the way but are more into the “hunt”). His latest novel “The Other Woman” particularly shows DS’s strong reliance on intelligence history with a focus on one of the most famous 20th century British spies (I will say no more but his mix of fiction and history is especially unique and credible, this in his dealing with all the major intelligence players globally).
DS went squarely away from the traditional CIA, MI6 or fictional intelligence service hero. Instead he chose to depict the adventures of Gabriel Allon, a veteran agent of the Israeli external intelligence service and also a top art restorer, giving us a very original blend of hero. Allon is working with a tightly knit team comprising well-depicted characters all of whom have grown with us over the last 20 years (I confess I started reading DS back in 1996, even corresponding with him on details of his pieces, giving him then some needed guidance on France). Not surprisingly he was a journalist with UPI and then joined CNN, with stints in the Middle East, which explains the wealth of his story crafting, attention to details and historical accuracy that is topped up by a great writing style making reading the Allon novels a real pleasure for the eye and the mind. Selecting the Mossad (well, The Office in the books), entrusted to protect the interests of the state of Israel, was not easy so much the intel service is unsurpassed and the country always “different”, to treat with care, especially today given its current premiership and some of the policies of Israel, which may not make it the most popular country in all quarters globally. However DS, never taking a strong side on policy matters has kept stressing the reasons why Israel always benefited, especially early on and in the West, from much support and admiration, partly driven by guilt, partly by respect for its many achievements, often alone against many. DS is a Catholic by birth, converted to Judaism (as he married Jamie Gangel, then a well known CNN reporter), who went deeply into Jewish matters as shown with his board membership of the Holocaust organisation in New York City.
Gabriel Allon, his main character, is a “Sabra” whose first language is German and was raised a secular Jew in the valley of Jezreel. His mother, Irene, is an Holocaust survivor from Berlin while his Munich-born father (not much mentioned) would die in the Six-Day War in 1966. He is a fluent speaker in many languages (helpful in his trade). His grandfather was a well known Expressionist painter from Berlin passing his talents to Irene before being killed at Auschwitz in 1943 while his mother kept the tradition and bestowed Gabriel with very special skills that will make him an art restorer. He comes out of art school in 1972 to be part of one of the Munich massacre revenge hit teams, hired by Ari Shamron, a putative father, to go after Black September terrorists. He will then live as Mario Delvecchio in Cornwall as an art restorer, leaving his Office past behind. His life however is changed when his family is victim in turn of a revenge terrorist car bombing in Vienna in 1991. He will then come back to work at the behest of Shamron and Western intelligence leaders in need of his particular skillset and experience, until he becomes head of The Office in 2016, having been one of its most senior members and souls. Of note in Judaism, the archangel “Gabriel” is the guardian angel of the State of Israel and is often “sent” by God, also at times to deliver His wrath, which is befitting Allon’s profession and origin.
Allon, although a fictional character (though is he?) operates in a world where leaders are who they are in real life even if never named by DS (In the latest opus, we know the American President is a departure from the standard White House leadership while the Israeli Premier is dealing with personal financial matters risking derailing the longest tenure of a PM since David Ben-Gurion). Allon and his team project teamwork and professionalism, facing many foes ranging from Middle Eastern and Iranian terrorists, to bad Russian oligarchs, to elements in the Russian SVR (my profuse apologies to all my Russian friends part of the network though I am sure there must be good Russian spy novels where the Westerners act as baddies), to neo-nazi organisations, shady Swiss bankers and rogue Vatican outfits, while working closely with the CIA, much with MI5 and 6 and even the French DGSE, very much part of the Western team. There is an element of continuity as the characters grow with the books over the years. Allon, whose three main residences, depending on the story, are Venezia, London and today Jerusalem, is also an art restorer with art as a key theme being often the initial focus of the stories, at times quite deeply ensconced into the international intrigue, with the looting of art pieces during WWII being often visited.
I know many of you, like me, have been fond of the recently departed Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels. I think Silva has the same authorship quality even if his hero is more of a hero than Bernie could ever be (indeed a anti-hero if there was ever one, though possibly explained by his German nationality and background role in Nazi Germany even if not a Nazi himself) and does not ask himself existential questions as you would expect from an efficient Mossad leader. However the art dimension gives Gabriel some humanity which may equate that of Bernie’s conscience in hell on earth.
DS’s books, published about once a year since July 1996, are as follows:
The early books
The unlikely Spy (1996) – Early 1944 before D-Day. A female German intelligence sleeper agent will try to know where the landings are planned. A game of cat and mouse is on with the fate of the war at stake. This novel made DS but he was still searching for his “genre”.
The Mark of the Assassin (1998) – Michael Osbourne, CIA, investigates a plane bombing off Long Island and risks everything to uncover the truth. DS tries to find a way and has the will for it.
The Marching Season (1999) – Michael Osbourne, retired from CIA, comes back to work on rescuing his U.S. Senator father in law in line to be the next Ambassador to the Court of Saint-James’s. This will end the literary career of Osbourne with DS focusing next on something he “feels” more about.
The Gabriel Allon (“GA”) series
The Kill Artist (2000) – Gabriel Allon, Israeli art restorer living in England, comes back from his retirement from intelligence, to assist his former boss, the legendary head of The Office, Ari Sharon, to hunt for the killer of the Israeli ambassador in Paris, who is also GA’s nemesis. GA who was part of one of the Munich 1972 teams that went after the killers of Israeli athletes and paid a terrible price years later for his involvement is going to settle some accounts once and for all.
The English Assassin (2002) – GA now works part-time with The Office though is framed for a murder he did not commit in Switzerland, getting involved in the matter of looted paintings during WWII and dealing with a secretive elite group of Swiss bankers and businessmen determined to protect the reputation of Switzerland at all costs, leading to fierce developments.
The Confessor (2003) – GA investigates the murder of Jewish scholar Benjamin Stern in Munich and, doing so, gets involved with The Vatican and his new Pope who wants to candidly shed light on the role of the Church during the Holocaust, prompting some strong feedback from the conservative wing of the Vatican that will defend the reputation of the Church at all costs.
Death in Vienna (2004) – An Israeli-run Holocaust research office in Vienna is destroyed. GA gets involved in the dark world of Nazi war criminals and neo-nazi organisations that protect them, finding some very personal reasons to go after the culprits. The Vatican gets involved again, together with Langley, confirming some post-war odd friendships of circumstances, and a hunt leading to Argentina ensues, while GA needs to deal with a professional killer sent to stop him.
Prince of Fire (2005) – The Rome Israeli embassy is bombed, leading GA to take a fuller role at The Office, working with a team that will be seen in later books. The team finds out that a descendant of Palestinian warlords, now a carefully reconstructed renowned French archeologist, may be the leader of the Rome bombing and other terrorist attacks.
The Messenger (2006) – GA uncovers a plan to kill the Pope, which drives him to investigate likely terrorist suspects among Vatican staff and infiltrating the network of a terrorist financier, leading to the man behind many terrorist activities and the plan against the Pope. It turns out that the main target also involves another major world leader.
The Secret Servant (2007) – GA goes to Amsterdam for a routine mission of purging the archives of a murdered Dutch terrorism analyst who was also an asset of Israeli Intelligence and discovers a conspiracy festering in the city’s Islamic underground targeting the American diplomatic community.
Moscow Rules (2008) – GA is approached by the editor of Moskovsky Gazeta about imminent threats to the West and Israel where a well known Russian arms dealer may be involved and senior members of the FSB play on all sides.
The Defector (2009) – GA continues his Russian adventures, trying to rescue a kidnapped Russian defector who sets him on a lethal course with the Russian arms dealer of Moscow Rules.
The Rembrandt Affair (2010) – GA and his team seek to recover a lost Rembrandt painting whose previous owners have included both Holocaust victims and terrorists. The book is focused on art theft and its links with terrorism and related activities.
Portrait of a Spy (2011) – A pair of bombings in Paris and Amsterdam have erupted while GA is unable to stop a third attack at Covent Garden. GA will face the new face of terror in an American-born cleric of Yemeni descent, once a paid CIA asset. GA will need to work with the art collector daughter of an arch-enemy who can traverse the murky divide between radical Islam and the West.
The Fallen Angel (2012) – The book is mostly set in Italy with GA helping Monsignor Luigi Donati, the Pope’s private secretary with a murder case that is troubling the Vatican given its location beneath Michelangelo’s dome in St. Peter’s Basilica. The story taking its roots in the art world leads to a smuggling art network with links to terrorists planning a major attack with apocalyptic consequences.
The English Girl (2013) – The mistress of the British PM is kidnapped in Corsica, prompting Sir Graham Seymour, Head of MI6 to request the assistance of GA in what is a delicate matter. GA starts working with a colourful Corsican crime boss and Christopher Keller, a new recurring character, former SAS officer believed dead in Iraq. All is not what it seems.
The Heist (2014) – Once again, this book is focused on the recovery of stolen art. GA is in Venice restoring a Veronese and will rescue an old friend, St. James’s art dealer, Julian Isherwood, unwittingly in the grips of Italian justice for being at a grisly murder scene. The dead man is a former British spy doubling as an art trafficker having dealt with one Caravaggio too many. Another hunt where shady Vienna bankers, Marseilles and Corsica criminals abound.
The English Spy (2015) – An iconic member of the British Royal Family is killed when a bomb explodes on her yacht. British intelligence asks GA to investigate, leading to targeting Eamon Quinn, a master bomber and mercenary. Christopher Keller, joins anew the ride in what they will find out they face old enemies.
The Black Widow (2016) – GA is now expected to become the chief of Israel’s secret intelligence service though on the eve of his promotion a massive ISIS bomb detonates in Le Marais district in Paris, killing an old relationship of GA. Enters Saladin.
House of Spies (2017) – GA is still on the hunt for Saladin, shadowy ISIS mastermind, four months after the deadliest attack on American soil since 9-11. He will soon go to Southern France where terrorists share the company of art dealers and models in Saint-Tropez.
The Other Woman (2018) – GA is about to organise the defection of an SVR agent in Vienna when he is killed with a set up to make the world believe The Office and GA did the deed, making him and New Russia engaging in an epic, final struggle, where a KGB mole of old, still in place, stands at the doorstep of the ultimate power.
You will discover alongside Gabriel Allon a cast comprising regular “friendly” characters who indeed grow with the books. Some of the key ones are Ari Shamron (legendary, on and off, now retired head of The Office, Polish-born from Lviv); Julian Isherwood (né Izakowitz, St. James’s art dealer and GA’s often partner and main link to that other world); Eli Lavon (Head of the Watchers at the Office and professor of biblical archeology); Chiara Zolli (now Allon, retired Venice-based Office agent); Uzi Navot (Ex-head of Paris station and Western Europe, then DG of The Office prior to GA in 2016); Christopher Keller (ex- SAS officer presumed dead, resurrected and now part of MI6); Mikhail Abramov (Moscow- born special forces officer at Sayeret Matkal and one of GA’s enforcers); Yaakov Rossman (Office head of special forces); Rimona Stern (Shamron’s niece, ex-IDF Intelligence Major and Iran nuclear specialist); Dina Said (Head of research, the encyclopaedic memory of The Office); Graham Seymour (cautious Oxbridge educated head of MI6, having had an extensive intelligence career in the defence of the realm); Adrian Carter (longtime deputy director of operations now head of clandestine services, CIA – Langley through and through); Paul Rousseau (Pipe-smoking head of the counter-terrorism section of Alpha Team, French DGSI); Don Orsatti (crime lord, from some remote location with high walls in Corsica); Sarah Bancroft (Engaging CIA case officer, in an on and off relationship with Abramov). One point which is amusing is that GA has never been a young guy, being around since 2001 so the maths are a bit on the tough side here though he seems to be permanently in his late 50s which, being 58 myself, I find eminently acceptable and reassuring. When one reaches that noble age, one obviously stops getting older.
Just so you know, if I may be facetious and as I am sure you were wondering, like DS I am a born and raised Catholic, quite secular these days even if applying many of the faith’s principles (except the other cheek). However, we never know our roots too well, and quoting my better half’s very witty grandfather, himself from the Jewish faith having married Catholic Sophie in a second wedding for both: “Well I don’t know whether Serge is Jewish or not but I only have one question…Ashkenazi or Sephardic?” As it turns out, I discovered only a few years back that my maternal grandfather was such as a result of a post-war re-marriage and that my real grandfather was a a sculptor who died at a young age in 1943 (ok that is quite short and there would be no female bloodline, but…). Maybe I am GA’s forgotten brother after all? 😉
I dedicate this note to Ron, a thinking leader among leaders and one of the most private and caring men I have been fortunate to know. I also dedicate this note to Alain, the “real thing”, a patriot who inspired me so much as a young man. Stay well, cousin.
I wish you all a great read and wonderful escape in the dark world of contemporary espionage with an unusually differentiated flavour.
Warmest regards, or should I say Shalom!
Serge Desprat- 1st August, 2018 (Prague)