20 Jul


Hard Lessons From Daniel Silva


Some years ago – though not quite as many as it’s been around – I picked up a used paperback thriller with an intriguing title and a strangely familiar-sounding author. The book was called The Kill Artist, and the author was Daniel Silva. That first experience of what’s come to be known as the Gabriel Allon Series is one of the reasons I plan to be there at Murder by the Book this coming Sunday, asking Silva to sign his ninth and latest, The Defector.

That first title was intriguing to me for the most obvious of reasons. The juxtaposition of two words – “kill” and “artist” – was eye-catching, since at least in the popular mind, artists don’t kill and killers don’t make art. Yet the hero I met in The Kill Artist was a juxtaposition of those two things and a whole lot more. He was indeed an artist, an amazing one apparently, gifted in the ways needed to restore the greatest Italian paintings of all time. And yet, for all that precision – no doubt because of all that precision – Allon had become one of the deadliest hired guns the state of Israel had ever known. An assassin, if you will. A hit man.

Such a collision of skill sets was hard to ignore but, in a lesser writer than Silva, also hard to believe. In book after book, Silva has filled in the colors of Allon’s past with brushstrokes worthy of the artist himself. As for many Israelis of his age, and for many Jews all over the world, there were dark echoes of the Holocaust. These concerned Allon’s mother, a victim of the Nazi concentration camps.

And there were even darker echoes of the modern wars involving Israel, including the battle to survive surrounded by Arab states. These wars had struck even more closely in Allon’s life – killing his only son and ruining his wife with a car bomb. “A Death in Vienna” (to borrow the appropriate Allon title) would be the single moment that haunts every effort he will make this side of the grave: to find justice, to find forgiveness, to find love, to find salvation. Light summer reading, indeed!

I was taken by Gabriel Allon from Word One. I even came to love his first name, one shared with the Archangel Gabriel from Jewish and later Christian writings, a name I heard often in Catholic school. Allon is an angel, all right. An avenging angel. And in lieu of religion’s God in heaven, Allon answers to a “higher authority” named Ari Shamron. Somehow along the way, Shamron retired from the Israeli secret service. But he figures in every Allon thriller, remaining the conscience and the force of will that together keep Israel alive. Shamron, you see, is Allon’s connection to his reasons for being the “kill artist.” And he’s a modern non-Jewish American reader’s connection to why and how Israel has decided (and/or been forced) to exist.

Ari  Shamron recruited the young Allon in the aftermath of the Black September killings of those Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. He understood these people who’d committed cold-blooded murder, who’d earned coverage and a kind of Arab-street hero status on international television. Without a hard lesson, he knew, such killings would have spread, and no one Jewish or otherwise would have ever been safe. Shamron chose Allon and personally trained him to administer that hard lesson.

In his new book, The Defector, as in his previous Moscow Rules, Allon takes on an even more current world evil – the extremes of the post-Soviet Russian state. Spoiler Alert: Vladimir Putin is not a very nice guy. In the bad old days, of course, Putin ran the KGB. And according to these books, he hasn’t changed one iota. Violence and the threat of violence remain the only persuasions that work in the Russia of today; and in the course of penning his fiction, Silva weaves in more than enough fact to make a strong case.

I love the Gabriel Allon novels – which Silva insists he never saw as a series at first. But I also love the remembered events that helped his name seem so familiar to me.

From 1980-1988, I was a reporter and editor for United Press International , the grand old UPI. I worked first in my hometown of New Orleans, then transferred to Washington to join a Foreign Desk that had recently moved down from New York. Wearing that hat, before becoming UPI’s national food editor, I worked only “the overnight,” finding my way to McPherson Square for my despised midnight-8 a.m. shift.  I should be forgiven for being unsure whether I  met Daniel Silva in those days. I don’t remember much, beyond falling asleep one time at my computer and bloodying my nose and chin when they smashed into the keyboard.

But yes, Daniel Silva was with UPI back then. First, I’m pretty sure, as SILVA-NX (NX meaning New York on our old UPI message wire, a precursor to email) and later as SILVA-FORN (Foreign Desk) in Washington. I wonder if he and I ever worked side by side on one of those horrific overnights, of if he worked only days, or if he’d already left for a career overseas, covering the headline-rich Middle East. I don’t know. And maybe I don’t really want to know. I’m just sure that if I could read only one book a year, I would make sure it’s the new one by Daniel Silva. My co-worker. My hero.  My kill artist. 

Daniel Silva signs The Defector, July 26 at 2 p.m., Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet St., 713-524-8597


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