Dear Partners in thought,
You will remember that I wrote a Book Note last summer about the works of Daniel Silva, the great spy and thrill novelist whose main character is Gabriel Allon, now head of “The Office” (or Mossad for the outsiders). DS struck again precisely, as he does every year, on July 15 (one day I will ask him why that very date) with a new novel. After “The Other Woman” who was an old flame of disreputable MI6 Kim Philby, we now have “The New Girl” which makes for an interesting evolution in titles. As I promised I will not reveal too much so you fully enjoy the book – especially a spy novel from the new and more muscular John le Carré – and will simply set the stage for you.
“The New Girl” is about MBS – sorry not Mohammed bin Salman – but Khalid bin Mohammed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud or KBM, who is the new early thirties ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He is a reformer, gives women the right to drive cars and attend sports events, jails his family members at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton before extracting from them USD 100bn and making them understand who rules and even gets implicated in killing Omar Nawwaf, a Saudi journalist, critical of the regime and of KBM (on this latter, tragic aspect DS has a pre-book note about the 54 journalists, including Jamal Khashoggi, killed in 2018). While his “Way Forward” had received much support in the West, Nawwaf’s killing, in which he seems to have been implicated even if he did not give direct orders, makes Western leaders and populations cringe. In spite of his drive for reform, KBM may after all be an old style autocrat who simply found a smart way to sell sell himself better in changing his country and its oil-dependant economy. This story set-up looks of course more than vaguely familiar. I was actually surprised that DS would stick to a storyline that was so close to reality, even using the well known acronym approach. However this is also why DS stands apart from the spy novelist crowd today as the line between fiction and reality is constantly and artfully blurred.
“The New Girl” is a twelve year old who studies in a top international school in Geneva, who lives in a castle in nearby France, is surrounded by bodyguards and whom nobody knows who she really is. She is of course KBM’s only child. And she will be kidnapped by an unknown party whose only demand to KBM is that he abdicates if he wants to see his daughter alive. KBM surprisingly turns to his art adviser, Sarah Bancroft (ex-CIA, see my Book Note of last summer – DS’s novels always bring back the same characters) who is tasked (even though she had cut ties post Nawwaf’s horrific killing) to approach Gabriel Allon on behalf of KBM. The two men will meet in Riyhad, which for the head of The Office is a premiere and Allon will agree to help KBM recover his daughter. He does it not not out of love for the House of Saud but in the knowledge that KBM in spite of his serious shortcomings is a better and more stable player for the region than a more radical Whhahabi ruler, also as tensions with Iran are at an all time high with Yemen and other hot spots where the two countries fight against each other. The two men will go to Paris (DS has considerably warmed to the French in recent years – I recall an exchange some ten years ago when I wrote to him and Jamie, his wife, that he was taking too harsh an approach on France) to meet with the couter-intelligence folks at DGSI. They then go to London to meet with Graham Seymour still running MI6 who gives them some useful intelligence on some individuals who have been spotted in Geneva the day of the abduction. In a return match of sort, it is a disguised KBM’s turn to go to Israel by way of the embassy in London. Little by little they get closer to the group of abductors still not knowing who they are but ending up identifying a close relative, more radical, of KBM who is quickly and rashly despatched by the Saudi ruler with Allon being present. They get very close to freeing Reema, his daughter, and all congregate to an agreed rendez vous point. We are at half of the book. Things will evolve in a unexpected DS way which I will let you enjoy even if the ride will be very tough indeed.