Daniel Silva is among the finest and most compelling writers in the suspense/intrigue/espionage/thriller genre in modern fiction, which has its share of brilliant or engaging practitioners—Ian Fleming (of course), John LeCarré, David Baldacci, Jo Nesbo, James Rollins, Kathy Reichs, Steve Berry, Donna Leon, Tom Clancy, Jonathan Kellerman, Mons Kallentoft, Louise Penny, P.D. James, Michael Gruber, John Burdett, Trevor Ferguson (aka John Farrow) and, yes, Dan Brown, to name a few of the most prominent. Silva is a charter member of this elect fraternity, one of the genre’s best-selling authors, whose area of expertise is the Middle East, the Palestinian terror machine, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Russian involvement in the region, the ambitions of Islamic jihad around the globe, and, of course, the efforts of Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, to counter these manifold threats.
Indeed, Silva’s knowledge of the Middle East imbroglio is second to none and his plots are invariably timely, impinging on the cultural, political, and military realities of the present day. His most recent offering, The Black Widow, may well be his most topical and profoundly analytical work. All the salient elements of the international arena, real and imagined, are there: ISIS and the caliphate; drone warfare; the dissolving border between Iraq and Syria; the disintegration of Lebanon; the collusion of Turkey; a succession of catastrophic attacks in Paris, Amsterdam, and Washington, the latter on the scale of 9/11; a feckless and narcissistic American president plainly inadequate to the burden of high office; the dysfunctional character of American and European national security; and the comparative effectiveness of the Mossad. The book and the world intersect at every point.
It is interesting to note that Silva’s novels are tailor-made for the Hollywood film industry, yet not one has appeared in the theaters. It is not difficult to see why. As in real life, his terrorists are Muslims, members of a socially protected species. When it comes to the entertainment industry, a toxic amalgam of abject pusillanimity and leftist sympathies, along with dark infusions of Arab cash, has had its predictable effect on filmic integrity and patriotic sentiment. One recalls that the movie version of Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears transforms the novel’s villains, a sect of actual Palestinian terrorists known as the PFLP, into a collection of Austrian fascists—safe, acceptable bad guys. Given their inseparable interweavings with geopolitical reality, Silva’s plots are thankfully immune to such deceptive meddling. Timorous and morally compromised, Hollywood will not violate the shibboleths of the day or offend its twin masters: progressivist culture and Islamic money. As usual, the iron grip of political correctness is, well, iron.
The same wariness is true of our literary critics who are often careful to hedge their bets. Robert Fulford, for example, a belvedere eminence for the National Post, penned a laudatory review of The Black Widow, but could not help pressing the right virtue-signaling buttons. Silva’s fascinating hero, Israeli operative and future head of the Mossad Gabriel Allon, may be “the James Bond of Israel.” Nevertheless, though sympathetic with Allon’s fight “for his country’s future existence,” Fulford considers it necessary to comment in passing that we “see everything from the standpoint of the Israelis,” as if we didn’t see everything from the standpoint of the British in the Bond novels, or from the perspective of the Americans in Berry’s works, or of the Thai in Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series, and so on. He plainly would not have felt obliged to qualify his approval had there been any other national polity in play.
This sort of tut-tut catering to the anti-Zionist crowd is merely a self-protective utterance, a sop to the unconvinced who might take issue with Fulford’s favorable review. The novel may be a marvelous read but, after all, what can we expect of a parochial and, for many, a pariah state like Israel. These Israelis are so self-involved!
Moreover, Fulford’s statement is also dead wrong. For one thing, the Palestinian outlook is put forward with proxy-like understanding as something the enemy is passionately convinced of. This act of projection, of identification with an adversarial narrative, is quite astonishing. For another, Allon works closely with his European and American counterparts, as well as with Jordan’s GID, and, in this story, does his utmost to prevent the jihadist killing spree in Washington, D.C. We see things quite intimately from the point of view of the French, the Belgians, the British, the Jordanians and the Americans, not only the Israelis.
To imply, as Silva does, that the Mossad is superior to the security agencies in the other countries is not a form of pro-Israeli advocacy; it is manifestly true. The Mossad (“the Office,” as it is called in the novels) is by no means perfect and has experienced its setbacks from time to time, but it remains the best in the business. The Belgian intelligence service GISS watches helplessly as ISIS establishes its European headquarters in the Molenbeek district of Brussels; the French DST is scarcely better (remember Nice); the Dutch AIVD is a joke; Britain’s MI6 is marginally more effective but has not been able to impede the gradual Islamization of the UK; the blundering of the CIA and FBI, two organizations that might have nipped 9/11 in the bud, is a melancholy fact of political life. To see things from “the standpoint of the Israelis” is rather to concede the weakness, incompetence and ruinous intramural rivalries of these intelligence services and to find a way to compensate for their failings, to everyone’s advantage. This is one of the messages of the book.
As mentioned, Silva’s plots are more than a work of imagination; they touch viscerally on events in the real world. He is not expressly dissecting the Byzantine convolutions of diplomatic negotiations with Iran or contemplating the imminence of nuclear Armageddon, as does Noah Beck in The Last Israelis, who believes with his fictional Israeli prime minister that “we are fast approaching the [Iranian] zone of immunity.” Silva does treat the Iranian question in The Rembrandt Affair, but his focus in The Black Widow, perhaps that most contemporaneous in the visionary pageant, is on the destructive machinations of the caliphate and Western impotence in the face of the menace.
The Black Widow is a riveting and complex tale, not without a number of plotting flaws that tend from time to time to derail the suspension of disbelief necessary to reader immersion in the story: a phone conversation hacked by the mysterious ISIS mastermind who goes by the sobriquet of Saladin, suggesting the improbability that ISIS technology trumps Israeli vigilance; the serendipitous fact that Gabriel Allon and Saladin happen to cross paths at the same hotel in Washington; the oddity that an Islamic recruiter is shot in revenge rather than pumped for information; and other such instances. It is also curious that a Washington restaurant frequented by Silva and his family is blown to smithereens in the course of the narrative. One hopes Silva had prior permission from the proprietor.
Notwithstanding, as columnist Barbara Kay writes, “Foreign-policy hawks will admire the author’s firm grasp of geopolitical realities….Like the hawks, Silva takes a hardheaded view of a patient, triumphalist Islamism that neither sleeps nor wavers in its obsessive jihad against Israel and the West. He seems to think Europe ‘might be dying,’ and definitely thinks America and Israel are in the fight of their lives for the foreseeable future.”
Kay is right on all counts. I would add only that one need not be a foreign-policy hawk to appreciate Silva. Those concerned with the real causes animating Islamic terror, which impacts our everyday lives, or interested in the intricate transactions among the intelligence communities combating the sprawling jihadist networks, or who happen to be Middle East history buffs contemplating the bloody farce of the so-called “Arab Spring,” or willing to acknowledge the embattled heroism of tiny Israel and its disproportionate contribution to defending not only itself but the security of the West, or simply fans of top-tier espionage fiction, will find a primer and guide in Silva’s dramatic cycle.
It appears that a TV mini-series may be forthcoming, which is a modest start. We are still waiting. Movie rights have been discussed from time to time but no deal has yet been consummated. Until this changes, it is Hollywood’s loss. The cloud of anti-Israeli animus in elite, academic and entertainment circles is a factor that Silva can weather. The Silva lining in that cloud is that the novels’ protagonist Gabriel Allon, who is not only a master spy but a world-class art restorer, and the groundwork of international intrigue that closely consorts with the daily news, are sufficiently engrossing to ensure Silva’s popularity for years to come. A bonus for the reader will be Gabriel’s coming elevation as director of the Mossad, which will open a new chapter in Silva’s ongoing saga of the People of the Book.