During the Cold War, spy novels involving sinister KGB agents, lovely GRU agents and dashing CIA spies were commonplace. That genre has faded into the background somewhat with the fall of the Soviet Union, but there has been plenty of political intrigue around the world to let the genre adapt. Now, in this age of terrorism and dynamic global politics, a new breed of spy novels has emerged, one that I havenít had a lot of experience with, and I decided to try Daniel Silvaís latest novel, The Secret Servant, to see what I was missing. Sadly, this isnít the greatest example I could have found, though in retrospect itís not altogether different in style from those KGB spy stories I read long ago.
Gabriel Allon is an art restorer who also works for Israeli Intelligence from time to time (not Mossad, of course, but ďSpecial Ops,Ē some fictional organization). One of the departmentís agents in Amsterdam is killed by a Muslim fanatic in much the same way that Theo Van Gogh was a few years ago. Gabriel is sent to look through his files and make sure nothing that leads back to Special Ops is in there. In the process of doing that, he gets involved in a sinister plot to kidnap an American diplomatís daughter, followed by a string of terrorist attacks around the world. Gabriel almost stops the kidnapping but then becomes embroiled in efforts to get her back. The case will lead him all over Europe and into the heart of fanaticism. Itís a journey from which he may not return.
The Secret Servant features many of the same tropes that the spy novels of the past had, but brought up to date. Real-world events are enveloped around fictional events in the lives of the characters. Unfortunately, thatís a big strike against this novel, because I had trouble suspending my disbelief through a great deal of it. Gabriel is supposedly one of the Israeli agents who hunted down and killed the Munich terrorists from 1972. Silva references current events all the way up to the Lebanon war of last summer. Iraq figures heavily in at least conversations throughout the novel (though the novel itself doesnít deal with Iraq at all).
Though this is meant to add a sense of immediacy to the action, it just doesnít work in this case. The real-life conflict in Iraq is tied too closely to George W. Bush, but the president in the novel is obviously fictional: the British ambassador is the presidentís closest friend, the president is the daughterís godfather, none of which sits right considering the ambassador is from Colorado and isnít in the oil business. The real-world references are distracting, but theyíre also necessary to give this kind of novel its punch.
If youíre able to put that aside, The Secret Servant becomes a bit more enjoyable, but it still suffers from stilted dialogue and prose that isnít the most gripping. Also, Gabriel is almost superhuman in the book, able to withstand the worst torture while barely batting an eyelash. Heís not that interesting, and none of the other characters compensate for it. The closest to come to doing so would be Elizabeth, the kidnap victim, whom we see in captivity occasionally dealing with the two men in the cell who captured her. We see her compassion and her fear warring when she has to care for one of the wounded terrorists, and her intelligence when she has to think on her feet near the climax of the novel. I donít know if Iíd want to read a book about her, but she is the saving grace in this one.
Which is too bad, because the concept of the novel is actually pretty good. The best parts of spy novels are the traveling, and I loved seeing the depths of Amsterdam and the exotic far north of Denmark. The action in the novel can be catchy, as Silva vividly describes a few shoot-outs with a great degree of skill. The detective work and following of suspects is also tense. Itís the slower moments that donít work quite as well.
One thing I do greatly admire about The Secret Servant is that Silva pulls no punches in his assessment of whatís gone on in the last five or ten years. He does portray Israel very sympathetically (if that offends you, you wonít want to touch this book, or probably any of his others), but he deals with the situation warts and all. His characters are highly critical of the Iraq war, highly critical of some of the measures that have been taken in the war on terrorism, and Silva doesnít gloss over whatís happened in the Muslim world either. In fact, this novel deals very heavily with the Moslem Brotherhood, the organization that has grown within Egypt over the last couple of decades. If any of that is a problem for you, be warned now.
Despite these criticisms, I actually enjoyed The Secret Servant, but more as a nostalgia exercise than anything else. It carried me back to the days of the Soviet spy novels and dropped me once again into a world of political intrigue. Silva adds the religious aspect that is so prominent currently to the mix, and he does it pretty well. Give me some good characters and better dialogue, and heíd have a winner on his hands.