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it's not business; it's personal
on July 22, 2009
It seems that the State of Israel is having no trouble in the great wide world. Its most accomplished agent is once again free to pursue matters of personal honor, unencumbered by obligations to Mossad, and indeed aided by that legendary organization.
Daniel Silva's early thrillers - both the Gabriel Allon series and the three Michael Osbourne novels - are among my all-time favorite reads. The Prince of Fire is one of the two best thrillers I've ever read, and The Unlikely Spy is a richly researched nail-biter set in WWII London. But the last two Gabriel Allon books were below Silva's usual standard, far below. The Defector is better than those, but not up to the early work. There's very little of Italy here - or any other setting -- and virtually no art restoration, and I'm exceedingly sad to see that Silva is close to churning out a Pattersonesque formula thriller.
Here we go:
Part 1: something bad happens to someone Gabriel knows
Part 2: Gabriel assembles a team and mounts a complex plan to fix things (being a fan of planning, I like this part best, but it was sadly diminished here)
Part 3: Gabriel or Shamron forces the US or the UK to carry the can
Part 4: lots of blood; and more blood
Part 5: Gabriel and his support staff tie up loose ends with yet more blood
No surprises here, although Silva does forego Gabriel's seemingly obligatory trip to St Peters.
Any writer can have an off year, but this makes three off years for Silva. What's up with that?
One possible answer is that he's working from his files, rather than doing research. I wouldn't care, were Silva not so addicted to the use of the particular. Without research, the details suffer, of course. It doesn't really matter that the Queens Lane Coffee House has regular panes, not latticed windows or that Rectory Road runs uphill from the Cowley Road, but it does matter that Grigori is in the Harrow Road at 6:12 pm, planning to be at St George's Bloomsbury at 6:30 on a rainy January night in a plot where every minute is supposed to be significant. Unless he is The Winged Defector, there's no chance. (And that church, BTW, is not in New Oxford St, but Bloomsbury Row.)
OK, who cares? Well, if the rest of the book were more carefully put together, I wouldn't. But if a writer says that place and time are important, then he needs to be careful with both. Or simply make up everything.
The material about the Great Terror reads like an add-on. Other than those ominous references to parallel depressions in the earth, you'll never see this coming: it arises from neither the plot nor the characters. Yes, Ivan Kharkov is hastily endowed with a Stalin fixation, but that's clearly an afterthought. Silva needed something ideological to balance the body-count, so we get a quick lecture on Stalinist executions. The Afterword makes the case better than does the narrative, but with some more attention to character or plot lines, Silva could have had it both ways.
Sadly, his interest in anyone but Gabriel diminishes with each novel, it seems. And, as another reviewer points out, even Gabriel fails to develop internally.
When James Patterson runs out of plots, he has A Serial Killer Go After Alex Cross's Family. [!!!] It works every time, judging from sales, and that appears to be what Mr Silva going for.
One of the hardest things to sustain in a long series is a plausible threat. This is why so many series' feature the police or private detectives. Threats are their business. Surely the State of Israel hasn't run out of enemies, so why Silva insists on making the threat personal is, perhaps, the biggest mystery here.
Still, a bad-ish Silva is better than most things you can pick up to read on a hot summer's night. The Defector is better than the last two in this series, and the tension is ferocious for the last 150 pages, so enjoy.