Given that he has written 15 novels of espionage and suspense, one might suspect that Daniel Silva is a stoic guy. All that saving the world, you assume, tends to harden a man. But even Silva gets attached, and killing off the characters he likes can reduce him to tears.
“I wept when I wrote that chapter,” Silva confesses, referring to the finale of his last book, the bestseller “Portrait of a Spy.” Even though “I knew it was coming from the beginning,” the novel’s death scene rattled him almost as much as it rattled his hero Gabriel Allon, who as art restorer, assassin, Israeli spy and scourge to terrorists is a Renaissance man for the dangerous 21st century.
Which is why in his new novel, “The Fallen Angel” (Harper, $27.99), Silva treats Gabriel gently. At least at first. In “The Fallen Angel” Silva eases Gabriel back to work by opening the story at the Vatican, where he’s working on a Caravaggio masterpiece. A woman’s body has been found in St. Peter’s Basilica, and though Vatican police are using the word “suicide,” someone in high authority — some might call him infallible — wants an independent investigation.
Only in a Silva novel would investigating a death under Michelangelo’s splendid dome be considered “easing” into the meat of the story, but that crime seems almost quaint compared to the sort of murderous attacks Gabriel and his highly skilled colleagues in Israeli intelligence work to prevent. But “The Fallen Angel” is no conventional murder mystery; the plot’s ramifications stretch back to Europe and the Middle East in shocking and violent ways.
Silva is no purveyor of minimalism; his books have active plots and bold, dramatic themes. They cover a staggeringly wide range of subjects. In addition to murder and art restoration, “The Fallen Angel” dabbles in the antiquities trafficking trade, Vatican politics, organized crime, religious mythologies and histories, political realities, and, of course, the growing threat of radical Islamic fundamentalism and its desire for the destruction of Israel.
“You should have seen the pile of books in my office when I was working on this book,” Silva jokes now from his home in Washington. “What a weird combination of things.”
That “weird combination” has earned Silva repeated bestseller status and won him fans like President Bill Clinton, who calls Gabriel Allon his “favorite fictional character.”
The books are “hugely intelligent thrillers which give you an exciting plot and a page-turning story but have smart insights into contemporary politics in the Middle East,” says Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher at Harper. “Daniel lives in D.C., and he’s deeply connected to the world of real politics and strategy. He knows a great deal about what’s going on in the corridors of power. You get the feeling there’s inside knowledge when you read the books.”
Silva, who was appointed to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in 2009, is quick to point out that his books are fiction, “first and foremost a piece of entertainment.” But he acknowledges that many of his beliefs find their way into the pages. In “Fallen Angel,” Gabriel and his brethren worry about many of the same things that disturb Silva: the repercussions of the Arab Spring (“if Egypt goes from being a sort of friend to active opponent, probably a likely outcome, that’s going to be a challenge”); Germany’s close business ties with Iran (“it just makes me uncomfortable that Germany is so willing to embrace for commercial reasons this regime that openly preaches the Holocaust is a myth”); the influx of Muslim immigrants into European countries like the Netherlands and France (“The French have a serious problem with radicals on their soil who have taken hold among communities of decent people; the problem is complex and mutlifaceted”).
“The books utilize characters and individuals who exist in a very dangerous world,” says Silva, who’s married to NBC correspondent Jamie Gangel; they have two children. “People I know personally, my friends, bits and pieces of them are in this series. For better or worse, there’s been a lot of action in the Middle East, no shortage of things for Gabriel to be involved in.”
As for radical Islamic fundamentalism, “it’s deeper than airplanes falling out of the sky or buildings falling down,” he says. “It’s a political ideology that has taken hold of a vital piece of real estate in the world, a place where we have lots of interests, energy interests. We have a close relationship with the state of Israel, and it’s going to be a challenge.”
To his millions of American readers in this post 9/11 world, the novels in which Gabriel and Co. lay waste to those who applaud the work of Osama bin Laden provide a sort of catharsis, a brief respite from the darker possibilities of the future. Gabriel is the perfect hero for the new millennium. Hence the legendary status Silva gives him: In the context of the novels, Gabriel is the assassin who hunted down the killers of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
“I wanted him to be an epic character,” Silva explains. “The Munich Olympic massacre had a profound effect on me as a kid. I was a track athlete, and I sat there and watched the whole thing and was horrified by it. It’s so interesting that 30 years later I would write these books. That day that so seared me as a young child that it found its way into my fiction.”
Gabriel, then, is as important to his creator as he is to readers.
“At some point, before I get too old, I’d like to try and write something else,” Silva says. “I intend to write a character other than Gabriel. I don’t know when that’s going to be. I will say that I will never kill him off.”