Aside from the former Seal Team members who happened to have had books ready to rack when the United States whacked Osama Bin Laden, there was perhaps no one better poised to exploit the development than Daniel Silva.
Silva writes thrillers. And to be able to align fiction so closely with fact was more than a little fortuitous.
But Silva’s Portrait of a Spy (Harper $26.99) is much more than a mere up-to-the-minute thriller. It’s also a bona fide thrill ride. Then again, what else would you expect from a guy whose books always hit the bestseller lists?
The 11th in Silva’s series featuring super spy Gabriel Allon, Portrait paints a picture of a terror-wracked world we often read about in the news. That it does so with a thrust that trumps even the boldest developments is testament to Silva’s talents. It’s also testament to the talents of the learned and lethal Allon, who’s the closest thing we’ve got to a Renaissance secret agent. Surrounded and supported by many of the series’ usual subjects, Portrait finds our man with a deadly mission that hopefully will never come to pass in real life. If it does, let’s hope the world has an operative as adept and as successful as Silva’s great creation. Otherwise we may all be in for some unpleasant surprises.
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The Herald talked to Silva, who appears Tuesday at Books & Books in Coral Gables, by phone in his DC home and asked him to bring us up-to-date on his terror-filled fiction.
Q. For the few not yet acquainted, who’s Gabriel Allon and why is he so continually compelling?
Gabriel Allon is a sometime spy and assassin for the Israeli Secret Service. He happens to have an amazing cover job — he truly is one of the world’s finest art restorers. And I think why he’s compelling is because he’s had one foot rooted in intelligence and intrigue and one foot rooted in the art world, which is also a place of intrigue. And I blend the two in each book. I think he is an endlessly fascinating character — moody, brilliant, humorous. And he fights on the side of the angels. He’s definitely someone people are willing to root for, and as I’ve learned over the last couple years, he has a large and growing fan base.
Q. How much alter ego is he?
Very little. I think a writer cannot help but leave little bits and pieces of his or herself in any character that he creates. That said, I’m not a secret agent and an assassin; I don’t want to be a secret agent and an assassin. But I guess I am in awe of the unique set of skills and talents he possesses.
Q. Your inner super hero perhaps?
(Laughs) I’m a pretty buttoned-down nerd, to be honest with you. But if I had an inner super hero I’d want it to be like Gabriel.
Q. Does he have a real life counterpart?
You know, I was inspired by and drew from a lot of different characters in creating not only Gabriel but the characters around him. But to the best of my knowledge the Mossad never had a person who worked as an art restorer as his cover and carried out secret assignments and assassinations. The one thing I’ve learned about researching Israeli intelligence and spending time around [those] who work for Israeli intelligence is there really are a lot of artistically talented and gifted people in their service. I think they recruit a different kind of person than American intelligence does. We like our intelligence officers to follow orders and walk a straight line, and they’re looking for a different kind of person. It’s uncanny the number of guys that I’ve met and studied who really are talented artists.
Q. Like the CIA’s recruiting from Yale’s Skull and Bones?
That kind of went out awhile ago. Really, the War on Terror ended that permanently. We had to recruit a lot of different people in a hurry. Today’s typical intelligence officer, particularly on the operations side, does not necessarily come from the Ivy League.
Q. The blue blazers and khaki pants don’t really cut it anymore...
(Laughs) There’s nothing wrong with khaki pants and penny loafers — that’s my uniform.
Q. But in Pakistan?
No. The CIA has really become, as you know, more of a paramilitary organization. They’ve been working hand-in-glove with the Pentagon and the armed services. A lot of knuckle draggers as they like to call them; guys who were former special forces. And that’s really what the CIA has become — a lot less pure espionage than in the old days.
Q. “Portrait” is up to the minute. Did you have to amend the story after Osama was taken down?
I guess I set out last summer and fall to write a book that sort of took stock of where we were in the War on Terror 10 years after 9/11, and as I got into the book the earth literally shifted under my feet. First there was Tunisia; then there was Egypt; the Saudis sent tanks into Bahrain . . .. you know the rest. At a certain point I realized that I had to incorporate these momentous changes into my story. It was a enormous challenge but also a enormous opportunity, because it gave me a chance to write a book that was really not just about terrorism, but about the Middle East as a whole and about the future. And it gave me a chance to write tomorrow’s headlines rather than yesterday’s headlines.
As a matter of fact I did have to amend the book because of Osama Bin Laden. The book was done; he was referenced as a living, breathing person. I woke in the middle of the night to the news that he had met his much-deserved demise, and while thousands of people were streaming on to the White House lawn to celebrate, I sat up with my copy-edited manuscript on my lap and rewrote all the relevant passages. It was really fortunate that it was still in the copy editing phase, because I got to publish the first thriller that deals with Bin Laden as a decedent. I was very lucky.
Q. So you didn’t have to yell “Stop the presses!”?
(Laughs) I’ve always wanted to say that!
John Hood is a writer and correspondent in Miami.