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A firsthand look at the spy who loved . . . paintings - and the man who created him

As Gabriel Allon is off on a new adventure fighting terrorists, we catch up on current events with his creator, writer Daniel Silva.

By Jennifer DeCamp, Times Staff Writer
Published August 12, 2007


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The Secret Servant
By Daniel Silva
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 385 pages, $25.95

Meet Daniel Silva
1 p.m. today, Circle Books, 478 John Ringling Blvd., Sarasota.

- - - 

Israeli spy Gabriel Allon almost had his fictional life cut short by his creator, journalist turned author Daniel Silva, after The Kill Artist was published.

Silva didn't harbor a grandiose plot for offing the art restorer-intelligence officer. He just planned to move on.

But fate, in the form of Silva's publishing house, wanted more Gabriel.

"They asked me what I was working on. And I said, 'Nothing. What do you guys want?' " Silva said. "They said, 'We want Gabriel.' I said, 'You're crazy. He's not going to work as a continuing character. No one wants to read about the exploits of an Israeli intelligence officer.' "

Seven bestselling books later, Gabriel is even more popular than when Ari Shamron, the head of Israeli intelligence, first coerced him from early retirement.

Silva's new book, The Secret Servant, focuses on al-Qaeda's infiltration in Egypt, the increased threat of a terrorist attack in Western Europe and the ethical dilemmas posed by covert torture tactics.

As for Silva's fictional hero, Gabriel's new assignment should have been a breeze: destroy the files of a murdered Israeli informant. Instead, information leads him to London's underground hotbed for Islamic extremists.

While following a lukewarm trail, Gabriel almost foils the kidnapping of an American ambassador's daughter. With the clock ticking at a furious pace, Gabriel ignores Shamron's orders to return to Israel and joins forces with the CIA to trace the missing woman.

The St. Petersburg Times caught up with Silva by phone at the start of his 19-city book tour.

 

For readers unfamiliar with Gabriel, what do you think has made him a lasting character in espionage fiction?

I think the two very distinct sides to his character. That he's an art restorer and that he doesn't spend all his time in offices. He's in lovely locations. He's working on paintings. Art and art history have played a tremendous role in the series.

 

Your first recurring character, Michael Osbourne, was a CIA agent. Why did you create an Israeli spy next?

While I was pleased with the little, miniature Osbourne series, I knew I had another level to get to, and I couldn't frankly create the mood of the books I wanted to create using a man who was, in effect, a deskbound CIA officer. . . . I lived in the Middle East. I covered the Middle East. And Israel stands at a crossroads in history that I'm fascinated by.

 

Your novels are heavily researched, and certain plot points are discussed with intelligence officers. How do you draw the line in crafting an entertaining novel that also is factually relevant?

I go by instinct, but that said, I am not afraid to deal with topics that are in the news, or relevant today. I think that's vital and necessary. . . . But my first responsibility is to spin an entertaining story. I want you to think that maybe the story could be happening, but also that the characters are slightly larger than life . . . that you want to spend time in their world even though it might sometimes seem that it's your world as well.

 

Your last three books have focused on terrorism. The Secret Servant opens with this quote from Islamic historian Bernard Lewis: "On present demographic trends, by the end of the twenty-first century at the latest, Europe will be Muslim." Why did you choose this subject matter?

Because it is incredibly important to the future of Europe, to our future relationships with Europe, and to our security.

Anyone who has followed the politics of Europe carefully . . . knows that Europe is changing, that the size of its Islamic communities is growing.

I want to make something very, very clear. The vast majority of Muslims in Europe live their lives peacefully . . . but unfortunately too many Muslims in Europe are ghettoized, marginalized, and too many of them are being radicalized, and they are falling victim to the siren song of the terrorist recruiters.

The intelligence community released National Intelligence Estimates in July, and it published something that's been known for a long time: that al-Qaeda's actually reconstituted itself, that it's stronger now than it has been since 9/11.

But buried within that NIE was the very interesting notion that the threat to Western Europe is probably more severe, and I would argue that the threat to the United Kingdom is even stronger still.

British intelligence services - MI5, MI6 and the antiterrorist branch of Scotland Yard - have said that there are more than 200 terror networks on the soil of the United Kingdom that they are monitoring daily.

 

The world is much changed since you first conceived Gabriel's character in the late 1990s. What has surprised you most? And how has this affected your characterization of Gabriel?

9/11 had a big impact on me personally. I live in Washington, D.C. I could see the Pentagon burning, or a least that gigantic cloud of smoke rising from the Pentagon all day long.

Gabriel has become a bit more hard-line. He has gotten to be more like Shamron in his outlook as he's gotten older. . . . He is slightly pessimistic about the future, and he knows that given the current lay of the land that there's never going to be a shortage of assignments for him.

Jennifer DeCamp can be reached at (727) 893-8881 or jdecamp@sptimes.com.

- 6 tonight, Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa.

 

[Last modified August 9, 2007, 15:32:43]


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