Few things in contemporary fiction are more reliable than the exploits of Israeli master spy Gabriel Allon.
At least once a year, Daniel Silva rips Allon away from his preferred life as the world’s leading art restorer and throws him into shadowy battle against the enemies of Israel and Western democracies in general. The stories are always thrilling and well written and always packed with a college course’s worth of details on the history behind the dangers in the modern world.
Through 15 books of Allon’s adventures, along with art history and spy tradecraft, Silva has taught readers about Russian oligarchs, Syrian despotism, Swiss corruption, and, above all else, the workings of Islamist terrorism.
But time has worked against Silva. His hero was recruited into the spy agency known as the Office to serve as avenging angel after the terrorist massacre of Israelis at the Munich Olympics in 1972. So if Allon had a reliable American alias in his portfolio of fake identities, he would be old enough to retire on Social Security.
Allon’s age and his promised move from the field to the director’s suite at the Office seemed to weigh on Silva and his star creation the past few books. The adventures remained creative, entertaining and educational, but they lacked a bit of edge and flair, as if author and spy alike feared their best days were behind them.
With “The Black Widow,” the 16th Allon novel, Silva is back at the top of his game. It’s as if accepting Allon’s transition to a new phase in his personal and professional life — the father of newborn twins and the head of the Office — has freed Silva to focus on storytelling and stop worrying about the future of the spy and the series.
It doesn’t hurt that this might be the timeliest Allon novel, although Silva acknowledges regret about how much truth can be found in this work of fiction.
In this election year, after yet another slaughter of innocents in France, it’s hard to argue when Silva writes: “That was the only thing Washington was good at these days — recrimination and apportionment of blame. … Now the two parties could not agree on what to call the enemy, let alone how to combat it.”
That enemy, for the first time for Allon, is Islamic State.
The Office, like Israel, has largely watched from the sidelines during Islamic State’s emergence. Israel is ultimately in the sights of the terrorist caliphate, but Islamic State’s regional enemies aren’t exactly Israel’s friends.
In the real world, Islamic State attacks on Jews and Jewish targets in France have brought Israel’s intelligence services into play. In “The Black Widow,” the turning point is a 1,000-pound truck bomb in Paris that destroys a center fighting anti-Semitism in France and kills its founding director, a friend of Allon’s who played a key role in the sixth book, “The Messenger.”
Allon is asked to help France find the mastermind behind the bombing, an Islamic State leader known as Saladin.
The resulting intelligence operation gives Allon two new allies, the head of Jordan’s intelligence service and the leader of a secret French counterterrorism group, to join his list of friends in high places in the United States, England, the Vatican and elsewhere.
The effort also expands Allon’s usual crack team with a new recruit, an Arabic-speaking French-Israeli doctor who works in the emergency room at Hadassah’s Ein Kerem hospital, Natalie Mizrahi. Allon’s team manages to infiltrate her into Islamic State as the latest young Muslim woman in the West drawn to the vision of an Islamic caliphate and the chance for vengeance for a lost love.
It’s a masterly, intricate intelligence operation that brings Natalie to Saladin’s bedside and provides the opportunity to stop a massive terrorist attack on U.S. soil — one designed to draw the United States and its allies into an apocalyptic land war in Syria. And, as happens in every Allon book, it all goes terribly wrong.
Which just adds to the anticipation for the 17th Allon book.