By JOHN DeMERS
I spent last week in the company of two old friends – Gabriel Allon of the Israeli secret service and Lou Boldt of the Seattle police department.
It’s a good-enough week when even one of your favorite writers publishes a new book, and an even-better week when a review copy of said book arrives via UPS at your front door. Last week, though, there were two books leaning against my door, and I won’t tell you which I inhaled first. I won’t tell you because it doesn’t matter. Between a new novel by Daniel Silva and a new novel by Ridley Pearson, it’s nothing more than a coin flip.
In one sense, the two thrillers – Silva’s The Rembrandt Affair and Pearson’s In Harm’s Way, totaling 863 pages – couldn’t have come at a worse time. I’d just met David Morrell at the Way Out West Book Festival in Alpine, and had gotten him to sign a paperback of 1972’s First Blood (yes, the novel that gave the world Rambo), plus his much newer book inspired by the Marfa Lights, The Shimmer. I’d barely finished my first-ever go at First Blood (impressive yarn, by the way – forget the Stallone movies) when the traffic jam on my doorstep began.
To make matters worse, Morrell’s keynote address at the festival proved so inspirational that I drove the 10 hours back to Houston concocting a new series of my own. Terlingua Heat launches the whole thing (it’s already approaching 16,000 words) and stars a hero quite different from my Chef Brett of Marfa Shadows fame. (www.marfashadows.com) Danny Morales is a river guide on the Rio Grande in and around Big Bend National Park, except that he’s hiding out from one or more Mafias because of a secret he’s only beginning to know. I mean, damn, how can I read my heroes’ new books when I’m supposed to be busy writing mine?
The Rembrandt Affair is an altogether breathless deepening of almost every theme Silva’s Allon series has set forth. It ties together, more profoundly than ever before, the Allon of art-restoration brilliance and the Allon of assassinations in defense of Israel. Years ago, I remember picking up a paperback of Silva’s first Allon book, The Kill Artist, in a used bookstore for 25 cents. I was intrigued by Allon then, and I’m intrigued by him now.
Still, what drives this new tale is art’s dark connections to the Holocaust. Not art for art’s sake, in other words. This is art – great art, since it’s a Rembrandt – that ties back via Nazi theft and secret Swiss banking practices to, of course, one of the greatest ongoing robberies of all time. Past and present come together in the person of a bazillionaire visionary (you know the type) who tries to save the world with Bono and his sort, exuding humanitarian platitudes while knowing every cent of his bazillions is built on an immense evil.
Silva’s plotting has never been better, expanding and extending his previously demonstrated skill for tying past to present without ever being boring. Plus, he is one of the few thriller writers these days who crafts sentences that verge on the elegant, the eloquent. All his Allon books, going back to my moment in that used bookstore, have been a joy to read. The Rembrandt Affair delivers nothing less than it promises, an intense immersion in suspense with plenty of deep issues to ponder when it’s over.
In Harm’s Way marks an intriguing return – and, like any appearance by Gabriel Allon, a welcome chance to spend time with one of the best characters ever. Lou Boldt of the Seattle PD was Pearson’s first and arguably most complex, conflicted and memorable hero. Pearson’s writing career, like many, has taken him in different directions – including several series, frankly, intended for young adults about Peter Pan and Disney World that, I hope, have made him a bundle but don’t interest me at all. Sadly, the new publisher he took up with wasn’t interested in the married Boldt and his sexy, unmarried PD temptress, Daphne Matthews. Walt Fleming came along to fill the void, a smalltime sheriff in a very high-profile small town, Sun Valley.
Honestly, I don’t know if it’s too much to hope that we’ll be following Boldt-Matthews in Seattle anytime soon. I hear Dennis Lehane will be back with his wonderful Kinsie-Gennaro series set in South Boston, after “forgetting” them to pen the big-bucks one-offs Mystic River and Shutter Island. When it comes to sexual tension, those two are the next best thing to Boldt-Matthews. There’s more than enough room for both, of course, on my bookshelf packed with sexual tension.
Let’s just say that In Harm’s Way is a Walt Fleming book (happily, without the running “Killer” used in earlier titles) that features Lou Boldt in an extended cameo – and even Matthews over the telephone. This book is wonderful, pulling together many of Fleming’s and the Seattle pair’s best investigatory attributes. Still, from this book you’d never guess all the dark alleys these two have gone down together in the past, professionally and personally, in books like The Angel Maker, Middle of Nowhere, The First Victim and The Pied Piper (not even so much as listed by his current publisher).
For fans of Walt Fleming and great thrillers in general, In Harm’s Way is a home run, a yarn packed with emotional and psychological entanglements with no shortage of quick, deadly violence. For fans of Boldt and Matthews, this is undeniably “half a loaf.” Honestly, though, that makes it way better than none.