As General Douglas MacArthur famously said, “Old soldiers don’t die, they just fade away.” In the world of fiction, old spies don’t die or fade away – they remain ageless, like James Bond, still agile enough for derring-do operations after decades, or they rise to the top of their intelligence service, as Gabriel Allon does in Daniel Silva’s House of Spies, the latest of the 17 novels in the series featuring the master Israeli spy.
Although the aging Allon has become chief of Israel’s Mossad in the novel, the indefatigable field operative doesn’t remain a chairborne ranger for long. While House of Spies can be read as a stand alone, it does segue from Silva’s last novel, The Black Widow, which ended with ISIS terrorist mastermind Saladin still on the loose after orchestrating a devastating attack on Washington. The latest novel begins just four months after the attack when Saladin, with cold-blooded precision, chillingly described by Silva, launches jihadists, armed with assault rifles and suicide vests, to inflict similar carnage throughout London.
Allon views Saladin as his personal nemesis and takes the lead among the world’s foremost intelligence services to locate and neutralize the terrorist. Silva’s portrayal of the tense interplay among the U.S., French, British, and Israeli services rings true. Although they share the common goal of eliminating Saladin, each approaches cooperation with the other cautiously because of diverse histories, political issues, and, most of all, the suspicion inherent in their profession. As Silva wryly puts it when discussing Allon’s relationship with his British colleague, “They distrusted each other only a little; in the espionage trade, that made them the best of friends.”
Allon musters the same team of colorful and well-drawn characters from previous novels in his hunt for Saladin, ranging from brilliant counterterrorism analyst Dina Sarid to Christopher Keller, former British special forces commando turned Corsican assassin. Keller is dispatched to follow Allon’s only slim lead to the Saladin network, the supplier of the assault rifles in the London attack. Ruthless as ever, Keller worms further information from the supplier with techniques that far exceed those prescribed in the U.S. Army Field Manual.
The trail to the terrorist mastermind ultimately leads to French tycoon Jean-Luc Martel and his lover, Olivia Watson, a former British fashion model. Martel owes his enormous wealth to global trafficking in narcotics supplied by Saladin. To entice the targets, Allon devises the most expensive cover story in history, costing a half billion dollars, which the spymaster acquires thanks to Israeli computer hackers siphoning the funds from Syria’s ruler. The stolen account funds an elaborate sting operation involving a lavish villa in Saint Tropez inhabited by two of Allon’s team, Mikhail Abramov, the resourceful former Israeli commando who poses as a wealthy Russian arms merchant, and his supposed wife, Natalie Mizrahi, the French Jewish doctor who played the role of a Palestinian in The Black Widow to gain direct access to Saladin. The targets eventually facilitate a meeting for Allon’s couple with Saladin in Morocco that leads to a dramatic showdown with the terrorist mastermind.
As in past novels, Silva sets the tense conflict between Allon and his antagonist against the backdrop of current events. Like today’s Islamic caliphate, Saladin’s ISIS has lost considerable territory and shifted its focus to spreading terror in the U.S. and Europe and finances its lethal operations with narcotics trafficking. Silva also incorporates the current tools of terrorist modus operandi into the novel, such as clandestine communications via the “Telegram” encrypted messaging service and simple explosive devices, their components meticulously described. Real-life counterterrorist technology also plays a significant role in Allon’s pursuit – courtesy of his American counterparts, NSA intercepts and military drones facilitate locating and tracking Saladin in a lengthy (perhaps too lengthy) chase across the Moroccan desert.
Silva’s reliance on current events and accurate details about terrorist and counterterrorist techniques imbue House of Spies with considerable realism, but much of the narrative hardly reflects the actual difficulty in hunting terrorists. Given the compressed fictional timeline, Allon cuts through the incredible bureaucracy of collaboration among four intelligence services with improbable ease. Allon and his team also recruit their targets fairly quickly, primarily by blackmailing them, a process significantly accelerated by coercive methods now considered controversial in the fight against terrorism. And his nemesis Saladin, who has successfully eluded his pursuers thanks to his paranoia, seems just a bit too eager to meet with a mysterious Russian arms merchant, who in reality is one of Allon’s best operatives.
But no matter. Silva keeps readers on the edge of their seats throughout the twists and turns of the riveting narrative despite these leaps in willing suspension of disbelief. There is also a sense of “if only” in Silva’s contrivances—if only someone like Allon could really surmount all these true life obstacles, the world would be a safer place.
In a recent interview, Silva said, “I’ve written more Gabriel Allon novels than Fleming ever wrote Bond novels. More Gabriel Allon novels than Tom Clancy ever wrote Jack Ryan novels. At a certain point, I will write something else. I’m just not sure when.” This reader certainly hopes Silva doesn’t reach that certain point anytime too soon.