By Michael Jacobs / email@example.com
Gabriel Allon is no James Bond. He doesn’t defeat the bad guys with a combination of charm, class and luck while bouncing between women’s beds with a vodka martini in hand.
Gabriel Allon is no Jason Bourne. He has no genetically enhanced superpowers, and he has a painfully accurate memory.
Gabriel Allon is an Israeli spy through and through, a man, like Liam Neeson’s character in the “Taken” films, with a particular set of skills enabling him to travel the world and do more than could be expected of anyone to help Israel and the Jewish people stay just ahead of those who would destroy us.
Daniel Silva’s creation is a wonderful character because he is so human. He’s smart, but maybe not the smartest person in the room. He’s good-looking, but women don’t swoon at the sight of him. He’s in good shape, especially for an agent approaching his mid-60s, but he doesn’t defeat villains by being faster or stronger than they are. The only area where Allon’s physical prowess stretches believability is in his Wolverine-like ability to survive punishment, from beatings to bomb blasts.
If you’ve entered the world of Allon, a world-class art restorer when he isn’t running clandestine operations, you know the pleasure of following his adventures through 14 novels involving Palestinian terrorists, Swiss bankers, Russian oligarchs and Syrian money launderers, among others.
“The English Spy,” the 15th Allon novel, shows us a man in transition. Allon has never settled down or been happy as a spy since assassinating the men behind the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Now, through fatherhood, age and a series of bargains made through the years, he’s heading home to Israel and an administrative role, perhaps for good.
The Allon novels have a familiar rhythm to them: Allon is out of the game, usually working on a Renaissance art restoration, when something deadly pulls him back in, often in response to a threat to friends. The investigation reveals something bigger and darker, at which point Silva shows the depth of his research and intelligence contacts through exposition that advances the story and educates the reader about the history and current threat of the story’s big bad. Allon brings in the full Israeli field team to execute an intricate, clever plan that goes awry. Allon and at least one other good guy escape death. The operation ends as a partial success, and a villain gets his just deserts in the denouement.
Along the way, Allon’s mentor, Ari Shamron, makes at least one try through a shroud of foul-smelling Turkish cigarette smoke to persuade Allon to take the lead position in their agency, known as the Office.
Formulaic? Sure. That’s the spy genre. The fun comes from the variety of nuanced, detailed, ripped-from-the-headlines plot lines Silva crafts to carry us through the guideposts, as well as the vivid characters Silva creates, none more alive than Allon.
And yet, while “The English Spy” has so many familiar elements, it’s also different. With twins and the director’s desk at the Office in the immediate future, Allon faces a life without art restorations or field operations; he is repeatedly told that he’s doing things the Office chief just doesn’t do.
Matching the tweaks in Allon’s life, Silva adjusts his approach even while taking his star to new territory, Northern Ireland. Silva provides less of his usual reader-educating exposition and almost none of his typical details about spycraft, and Allon spends much of the novel sharing the leading role or even playing second Beretta to Christopher Keller, a recurring character since “The English Assassin.”
It surely is no accident that as Allon nears the end of his time in the field, he provides mentorship of Keller that parallels the guidance Shamron gave him for four decades. Keller is a bit too much Bond and too much Bourne to replace Allon in readers’ hearts, but if “The English Spy” marks a transition not only for Allon from field to office, but also for Silva from Allon to another, Keller is an appealing option.
This isn’t farewell for Allon, but if you’ve ever enjoyed one of his adventures, you won’t want to miss this one, just in case.
The English Spy
By Daniel Silva
Harper, 496 pages, $27.99