Book Review: Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva

After the release of Daniel Silva’s book The Rembrandt Affair last year, I speculated that it might be the last book we see from Silva featuring his tragic hero, Israeli Mossad assassin Gabriel Allon. Silva played coy when I asked him if it was the end of the line for Allon. We now have his unequivocal answer. Portrait of a Spy, released this month, features a wiser and less tragic Allon. Silva now says that he never had any intention of retiring Allon. Of course, that’s easy for him to say now that he has a fat new contract with publisher HarperCollins and a multi-movie deal with Universal Studios in the works. There are literally tens of millions of greenback reasons for Silva to keep writing about Gabriel Allon. But that’s all shop talk. Is the book any good? Read on.

Silva reintroduces us to the life of Gabriel Allon, as he is wont to do, through the eyes of his neighbors who are oblivious to the fact that the reclusive artist living in their community is a legendary Israeli Mossad agent and assassin. Once again, Allon is attempting retirement and “normal life” in rural England. The gifted painter and his beautiful young wife, also on the Mossad payroll, return to London to pick-up a painting in need of professional restoration.

While they are there, Allon sees a suspicious man walking through the crowded city streets. Allon recognizes the man as a potential suicide bomber and begins pursuit. Allon’s instincts proved correct – the man was a suicide bomber – but he’s unable to prevent the terrorist from detonating his explosive vest and killing eighteen innocents. Consequently, Allon is pressed back into service to bring down the terror network responsible for the bombing.

This setup phase of the story reveals the first of two blemishes I found on the face of Portrait of a Spy. Unfortunately the author and his editorial support failed to rub on a little literary Proactiv® to smooth these plot pimples out of a story that is otherwise compelling.

First, the above described coincidental nature of Allon encountering the terrorist. Silva’s protagonist is in London for the first time in a year when he just happens to be in the right place at the right time to pick the one man in the crowd in the middle of the 607 square mile city of 7.8 million people who happened to be a suicide bomber. Please!

Secondly, Allon recruits the worldly daughter of a deceased wealthy Saudi terrorism financier to help penetrate the terror network responsible for the London bombing. The father was killed by, of all people, Gabriel Allon (!) as told in Silva’s 2007 novel, The Secret Servant.

The daughter’s defection is too easy and too fast. In a secret meeting in a villa outside Paris, the heiress is convinced to turn against her father’s legacy, her cultural heritage, and her county to join forces with the intelligence services of Great Satan and the Great Satan’s puppet (i.e. the United States and Israel – which is which, I’m not sure).

Her reasoning for getting in bed with the man whom she knows shot and killed her father in front of her own eyes? Feminism. Because Saudi women must veil their faces, must be accompanied by a chaperone when in public, cannot drive, etc. And this woman, whose motivation is so thin, is the spy whose portrait is being painted in this book. Puhleaze!

The first literary zit might have been the result of an insistent publisher who wanted Silva to start his book off with a bang. Or not. But I’ll give Silva the benefit of the doubt. Zit number two is the result of inadequate development of this key character’s motivation.

Silva learned of the killing of Osama bin Laden in the midst of writing this book. He integrates that historic fact, as well as other current events, brilliantly into this work. Other recognizable subplots are clearly influenced by FBI traitor Robert Hanssen, who sold secrets to the Soviets and Russians, the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room, and American-born and raised Al-Qaeda spiritual leader Anwar al-Awlaki.

There’s not much red meat for firearms aficionados, although guns figure prominently through the book. Glock .45s, AK-47s, and Beretta’s are mentioned but no specifics are offered. Silva doesn’t so much as indicate that the caliber of the Beretta is 9mm, let alone reveals that it is a Model 92, as described in earlier books.

Although not the best of the series, Portrait of a Spy is satisfying enough to add weight to the contention that Daniel Silva is the best thriller writer of this generation. As cliche as it has become to say, Gabriel Allon is the James Bond of the post-9/11 era. The complexity and contemporary realism of the plot – a little acne notwithstanding – is compelling enough to lift Portrait of a Spy onto the top of the list of this year’s must read thriller novels.

[Advance review copy of Portrait of a Spy provided by Harper.]

[Book Review: The Rembrandt Affair by Daniel Silva]