REVIEW: Honour among spies: The English Spy by Daniel SilvaMagazines
THE tragedy underlying even the best espionage novels is that they are designed as entertainment, not fact. Hence, it is impossible for even the best of them to come across as ‘authentic’ in any meaningful sense of the word. While such is indeed the case with internationally-renowned writer Daniel Silva’s latest thriller, The English Spy, the author can be excused for all his odd coincidences and improbable scenarios, because in aggregate the book comes across as a rollicking good read — which, the author himself implies in a useful author’s note, is all that it is really meant to be.
Surprisingly humble though such an authorial agendum may be, true to most modes of spy fiction ranging from that of Ian Fleming to Raymond Khoury, the book spans a staggering geographical canvas, with its characters hopping all over Corsica, Lisbon, Vienna, London, Belfast, Jerusalem, and Moscow, as well as affiliated environs and suburbs of the aforementioned cities. The protagonist, Silva’s established Israeli spymaster, Gabriel Allon, is approached by MI6 head, Graham Seymour, in order to help the British hunt down a notorious hired assassin of Irish origin, Eamon Quinn. A deftly and memorably sketched character, Quinn commences the novel’s action by blowing up a luxury yacht carrying a beloved British princess. Allon is painfully aware that Quinn has a markedly dangerous history and persona — the Israeli’s own infant son was killed by a car bomb planted by a man trained by Quinn himself. Indeed the Irish villain’s specialty is the construction of lethally precise bombs, a point that results in his being one of the most coveted of hired assassins.
With the fanatical determination that characterises a plethora of partnerships in thriller fiction, Allon insists that he be accompanied on this quest by former British commando, Christopher Keller. Although Keller is reluctant to leave his villa in Corsica from which he now operates as a paid assassin himself (albeit for ostensibly ‘nobler’ causes) he joins Allon in a spirited manhunt that takes them to the very heart of Irish Republican Army (IRA) dynamics in the most troubled areas of places such as Belfast. Keller’s hatred of Quinn is as personal as Allon’s, and the mantra “when it’s personal, it gets messy” is ominously repeated by Silva numerous times over the course of the book.
Quinn doesn’t disappoint either the readers or the Russian government for whom he ostensibly appears to be working — with the help of a cool-headed female accomplice he successfully detonates a car bomb in London’s jam-packed Knightsbridge area. Undeterred by such setbacks, Allon and Keller pursue the villains to Ireland, where the novel’s main climax takes place. Along the way, the dictatorial Russian president’s involvement in the matter is deliciously exposed, for it turns out that in the grand scheme of the novel’s overarching plan, VEVAK (the Iranian secret service) and SVR (the Russian one) are avidly working against Britain’s prime minister, Jonathan Lancaster, for political and economic reasons.
One would like to assert that things go well for the good guys, except that technically speaking no one can truly count as a ‘good guy’ in Silva’s stories. It is a necessary part of Allon’s profession to kill ruthlessly and remorselessly, whereas Keller often comes across as little better than a thug with a lusty vendetta and deep pockets. However, none of the characters in world-class espionage fiction are likeable, and virtually all of them have to be somewhat amoral in order to survive.
Oddly, however, just as there is honour among thieves, fixed principles abound in Silva’s work. Opponents are often rapidly killed just to put them out of their misery, harsh interrogations are carried out in a manner whereby both sides tacitly agree to maximise efficiency, and as far as possible wives and children are left out of the equation. For all the chaos and brutality, Allon’s universe operates in a twistedly logical and organised manner, which might explain why the pace and momentum of Silva’s writing appear to be his greatest strengths as a novelist. The last 20 pages — when Allon’s second wife happily prepares to give birth to twins — make for far more laborious reading (pun intended) than the 400 action-packed pages that precede them.
Drama and action aside, The English Spy contains some fine elements of black comedy. Garden-variety Islamophobia abounds in the book — one giggles when the most rabid imam of Britain is described as being rapturously pleased at the news that the Jewish Allon has been killed (although much to the Islamic world’s disappointment the scenario turns out to have a been a carefully crafted lie). No major historical leader other than Muammar Qadhafi is mentioned by name; even the Russian president is referred to simply as “the tsar”, and the American president is too clueless and tiresome to warrant much attention.
It is evident that Silva’s knowledge of the Middle East would barely fill a thimble, but while this would be deeply worrisome in the real world of Israeli espionage, within the confines of his novel it just promotes some superficial chuckles. He demonstrates a far finer grasp over Irish history and conflicts, which is understandable since Quinn has major ties to the real IRA. Female agents get short shrift in the book — the head of MI5, Amanda Wallace, appears to be more interested in surviving her association with Seymour as opposed to holding her own in the world of terrorism and espionage. Two highly-trained female spies end up being trussed up like chickens, in a barn no less.
Silva’s writing, while as engaging as Jeffrey Archer’s, lacks the depth and timber of Frederick Forsyth’s, although one cannot help but be gladdened by the absence of historical artefacts that religiously litter the books of both Dan Brown and Steve Berry. But it would be petty and uncharitable to quibble about such minor details in a book about which the author honestly claims in his afterword: “The English Spy is a work of entertainment and should be read as nothing more”. One should be truly grateful that it is nothing less.
The English Spy
By Daniel Silva