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Familiar Fictions

by John J. Miller

Daniel Silva’s thrillers are not far from the headlines

In a terror strike that lasted a little more than a minute on March 22, Khalid Masood plowed a speeding car into dozens of pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge, killing four (a fifth fell into the River Thames and died later). After crashing his rented Hyundai Tucson, the Muslim convert leaped from the vehicle and fatally stabbed an unarmed policeman near Parliament Square before another officer shot him dead.

Almost exactly a week earlier, on the other side of the ocean, the American author Daniel Silva finished the first draft of House of Spies, his espionage thriller released on July 11. Its second chapter features a terrorist attack on London, bloodier and much more violent than its real-life parallel and even more closely resembling the separate lethal assault that came on June 3, on and around London Bridge.

Silva is getting used to predicting the news: While he was writing last year’s Black Widow, which includes bombings and mayhem in Paris and Brussels, terrorists killed more than 160 people in those cities. He took a break from writing and thought about changing the details of his plot, but decided to continue. “I take no pride in my prescience,” he wrote in a foreword. “I only wish that the murderous, millenarian terrorism of the Islamic State lived solely on the pages of this story.”

The fact that it doesn’t helps make Silva one of the most gripping novelists at work today. House of Spies is his 20th book, and his 17th to feature Gabriel Allon, a globetrotting Israeli assassin. Over the last two decades, Silva’s titles have sold more than 20 million copies. In a couple of years, his influence may grow beyond an audience of readers as his stories reach screens, following a deal signed in May with MGM Television. “I’m trying to capture and chronicle the great conflict of our time,” says Silva. “I take this issue very seriously.”

The 56-year-old Silva was born in Kalamazoo, Mich., but grew up mostly in California after his schoolteacher parents decided to flee the brutal winters. “I always wanted to be a novelist,” he says, confessing an early fondness for the potboilers of Alistair MacLean and Sidney Sheldon. He attended Fresno State and pursued journalism because he thought it would provide a good preparation. “All of my heroes — Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway — had been journalists,” he says. After graduating, he worked at local papers and in 1984 took a temporary job with UPI, the wire service, to cover the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. This led to a full-time spot at UPI’s foreign desk in Washington, D.C., where Lucien Carr, a onetime member of Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation circle, became his mentor.

In 1986, Silva became UPI’s man in Cairo. “I had a ringside seat for watching the birth of Islamic radicalism, which would shape the Middle East in ways we didn’t yet know,” he says. “I talked to members of the Islamic Jihad. They told me that they wanted to destroy America and the West. I took them at their word.” On assignment in the Persian Gulf, he met fellow journalist Jamie Gangel, then with NBC News. They married and he moved back to Washington, becoming a producer at CNN. Why the switch from print to television? “It was the job I got,” Silva says.

It also trained him to be a novelist. “On any given day, I had to write for three or four people,” he says, mentioning Frank Sesno and Bernard Shaw, the retired CNN anchors. “This helped me learn dialogue. Even today, when I’m writing a book, I hear the characters talking in my head. That comes from television.”

When he reached his thirties, Silva felt he was finally ready to compose a novel. He changed his routine, waking early and writing for a couple of hours each morning before heading to CNN. The Unlikely Spy, with its tale of World War II espionage, came out in 1996 to good reviews and sales. A pair of books about a CIA agent followed. Then Silva set aside his American hero. “This was before 9/11,” he says. “It was a kind of quiet period: We heard about the ‘end of history’ and how the United States had no enemies. I wanted to write about a new character who would be in the thick of things.” So Silva created Gabriel Allon, a Jewish James Bond who is a member of the Mossad, the intelligence service of Israel — “a country that fights for its survival every day,” says Silva. Allon debuted in The Kill Artist, a 2000 book that forever changed Silva’s career.

The Kill Artist was supposed to be a one-off — a standalone story rather than the first entry in a long series. “I was convinced that there was too much anti-Israel sentiment, even too much anti-Semitism, for this kind of hero to have mass-market success,” says Silva. “I’m sure that a lot of people won’t pick up these books because of the main character.”

That may be true, but the green-eyed Allon also has propelled Silva’s career ever since his editors persuaded him to keep writing about him. “You can tell that I wasn’t planning a sequel,” says Silva. “When the book begins, Allon is a grieving, broken, morose, reclusive wreck of a human being.” He’s also nearing his 50th birthday — not an ideal starting point for a series character who is about to embark on a long run that still hasn’t ended. Yet Allon has proved compelling as he tries to balance his public life as a renowned art restorer with his covert life as an Israeli spy, swapping paintbrushes for guns, again and again in book after book. Over the course of his fictional career, he has saved the life of a pope and the career of a British prime minister while grappling with Iran’s nuclear program, the minions of al-Qaeda, and the lone-wolf predators inspired by ISIS.

By the start of House of Spies, the latest novel, Allon has become the head of Israeli intelligence — but before long he abandons his new desk in Tel Aviv for a familiar field operation against an old nemesis, an Osama bin Laden–like figure known as Saladin. As with all of Silva’s novels, Allon piles up frequent-flier miles, this time hopping from London to Saint-Tropez to Casablanca as he and a recurring cast of characters prepare for a final confrontation. To keep up with the times, Silva adds to his ensemble. House of Spies, for instance, introduces Morris Payne, the new director of the CIA — and a thinly disguised version of Mike Pompeo, the Trump administration’s CIA chief. They share a résumé, an outlook, and even a set of initials. The fictional Payne comes off as aggressive — and Silva expects Pompeo to bring a new vigor to the CIA: “He’ll take the fight to the enemy.”

As a novelist, Silva seeks to entertain. Yet he also means to share his views. Following a terrorist attack in House of Spies, for example, a British tabloid runs a headline: “Welcome to the New Normal.” This allows Silva to heap scorn on the idea that Westerners must learn to live with terrorism, treating it as a nuisance rather than a threat. “We can’t surrender to this idea,” he says. “We can’t accept as normal the idea that if you go to a restaurant in London, someone might mow you down in a car or chop you to death with a knife. How is it morally acceptable to treat this as normal?”

Even so, Silva recognizes the maddening persistence of Islamic radicalism. In Black Widow, he laments the plight of the West: “It was a long war, perhaps a war without end.” Silva has sensed this from the start, as a memorable line in The Kill Artist suggests: “For every terrorist we kill, there’s another boy waiting to step forward and pick up the stone or the gun. They’re like sharks’ teeth: break one and another will rise in its place.” Seventeen years later, the words still ring true. “I’m not wild-eyed,” says Silva. “We need to be smart about combating this problem. It begins and ends with good intelligence. For the foreseeable future, on any given night, our operatives will be out there killing terrorists.”

Silva doesn’t offer any simple solutions. “We’ve tried lots of approaches,” he says. “In Iraq, we tried regime change with boots on the ground. That didn’t work. In Libya, we tried regime change without boots on the ground. That led to chaos and a failed state. In Syria, we called for regime change, put no boots on the ground, and for a time did nothing to aid anybody. Look what we ended up with.” The root cause, however, is something other than the U.S. response to the ongoing crises of the Middle East. “The problem is the dysfunction of the Arab world,” says Silva. “That’s not too strong a word to describe its deep problems. I’m not sure we can do much more than keep a lid on it.”

Yet he worries that the lid will blow off. “We’re going to drive ISIS out of Raqqa, but our enemies are incredibly resilient and adaptive,” he says. “They don’t need an earthly caliphate anymore. To run a global insurgency, they need a room with computers, phones, and encryption. I fear that it’s only a matter of time before al-Qaeda reemerges with a true terror spectacular.”

In Daniel Silva’s imagination, Gabriel Allon and his friends will continue to protect and defend. In the real world, are Americans doing enough? When a character in House of Spies raises this exact question, Allon offers a cagey answer: “To be determined.”

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