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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Man of God, angel of vengence and death, maker of changes

Daniel Silva has a new novel -- Portrait of a Spy. It's the thirteenth book in an ongoing series of books about Gabriel Allon, an art restorer who is also an Israeli spy and counter terrorist assassin. Some of you may remember I've written about Silva and his skill before.

It isn't easy to write about the same character doing the same thing in novel after novel with the same supporting cast of characters. Len Deighton, another of my favorite writers of espionage thrillers, wrote a trilogy of trilogies that began with Berlin Game and ended with Charity that I would highly recommend to anyone. The problem is, though, those nine novels demonstrate the difficulty. Because while each book must stand on its own, it also must put itself into context with the preceding novels. And my feeling by the time I got half way through the nine books was that for much of the time I was rereading the stories I'd read before.

Silva, on the other hand, is a true master of three important creative traits. The first is letting his characters age naturally from novel to novel. So in a sense, they actually become different characters. The second is giving just enough information about the recurring characters and their past exploits that you don't have to know what happened earlier to understand who they are and what they are like while at the same timethe reader who does remember them can recall the earlier story. The third and most important trait is describing the character in such a way that you don't need to have known the character at all to get an image of who and what the character is.

One of the most important characters in the books is Ari Shamron, who is legendary within the Israeli intelligence community, the man who recruited Allon as well as Allon's father figure and linchpin for what happens in each novel. He often isn't introduced, other than in brief allusions, until midway through the book. Here is how Silva introduced him in Moscow Rules:
There is a VIP reception room at Ben-Gurion Airport that few people know and where even fewer have set foot. Reached by an unmarked door near passport control, it has walls of Jerusalem limestone, furnishings of black leather, and a permanent odor of burnt coffee and male tension. When Gabriel entered the room the following evening, he found it occupied by a single man. He had settled himself at the edge of his chair, with his legs slightly splayed and his large hands resting atop an olive-wood cane, like a traveler on a rail platform resigned to a long wait. He was dressed, as always, in a pair of pressed khaki trousers and a white oxford cloth shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. His head was bullet-shaped and bald, except for a monkish fringe of white hair. His ugly wire-framed spectacles magnified a pair of blue eyes that were no longer clear.

Note "like a traveller on a rail platform resigned to a long wait." In Portrait of a Spy Sharon is older, supposedly retired, but still at the center of Israeli operations. Half way through the book, Silva introduces him this way:
A few minutes after the speech ended, a message arrived from the Operations Desk at King Saul Boulevard. It was just four characters in length -- two letters followed by two numbers -- but its message was unambiguous. God was cooling his heels in a Montmartre safe flat. And God wanted a word with Gabriel in private.
Then on the next page at the start of the next chapter we get this description of God:
The door to 3A hung slightly ajar; in the sitting room was an elderly man dressed in pressed khaki trousers, a white oxford classic shirt, and a leather bomber jacket with an unrepaired tear in the left shoulder. He had settled himself at the edge of a brocade-covered wing chair with his legs slightly splayed and his large hands bunched atop the crook of his olive wood cane, like a traveller on a rail platform resigned to a long wait. Between two yellowed fingers burned the stub of a filterless cigarette. Acrid smoke swirled above his head like a private storm cloud.
An angry storm cloud above the head of an angry God waiting to have a private word with his archangel Gabriel. (One meaning of Gabriel is man of God.) As much as I want Silva to write about other things, I hope he never stops writing about Allon and Shamron.

1 comment:

  1. Some authors just know how to segue into the next book. Silva seems to have achieved this successful trait.

    Excellent review too.

    Have a terrific day. :)