Book Review: Portrait of a Spy
Publication Date: February 21, 2012
· Daniel Silva
· Official Site
by Jeff Ritter
Published: May 23, 2012
I've always been fascinated by spycraft. I have no doubt that Hollywood has grossly over-glamorized it, but I can't help myself. From
Bond to Bourne to Powers, I'm hooked. Of course Hollywood doesn't keep up with my hunger for spy fare -- and with shows like Chuck and Burn Notice winding down or done already -- I find myself turning to the bountiful world of the printed page (for those of you reading this on your cell phones, I'm talking about books...Google 'em, then put your phone down and try it the old-fashioned way for an hour -- you might even enjoy it).
Portrait of a Spy, a novel by Daniel Silva, is the eleventh book in a series revolving around protagonist Gabriel Allon and is now available in paperback. Despite not having read any of the previous books, Silva made sure I didn't feel lost. The book begins with a mysteriously private fellow and his lovely wife renting a house on the English coastline. The townies are politely nosy, and the couple politely deflect their inquiries. Before long, the mysterious gentleman, Gabriel Allon, finds himself tasked with restoring a canvass from one of the old masters. Gabriel excels at this sort of specialized work. In fact, there's possibly only one thing he does better -- being a spy for Israel. He's gathered intelligence and performed government-sanctioned assassinations for years and is now trying to enjoy a quiet retirement. When he spots a suicide bomber in London and fails to stop him from detonating (thanks to the well-meaning if misguided British police who spotted Allon's drawn pistol and stopped him before he could stop the terrorist) he finds himself back in the game and reassembling his team of covert operatives.
These operatives are characters Silva introduced in previous books, and as I've said before Silva does a great job explaining just enough of their history to give you
the basics without completely rehashing his previous books. The plot of Portrait of a Spy follows events of his 2006 novel, The Messenger. As Gabriel's team works jointly with the American CIA and British MI-6 to track down the mastermind of the suicide bombing they find themselves with the opportunity to take down several major pieces of the al Qaeda-like terrorist machine. They recruit the daughter of Allon's target from The Messenger to be a double agent. Of course, things don't go according to plan.
Despite not having read any of Silva's previous novels, I enjoyed the quick pace and procedural approach. The spycraft seemed sound based on other books I've read, including non-fiction works. Silva keeps the chapters short and drives the story forward at a solid clip. The pace seems well-suited to Hollywood, though I'm not aware of any of his best-sellers having been adapted to a movie or television show. I found myself picturing Irish actor Gabriel Byrne as Allon, but whether that was from Silva's description or a subconscious connection of their shared name I can't honestly say.
The only thing I found lacking was character development. Silva doesn't spend a lot of time in his characters' heads. The depths of Gabriel's various relationships with other characters are only barely plumbed. Perhaps he goes into greater detail earlier in the series, but I wouldn't have minded knowing what makes these characters tick. A line here and there about loving his country isn't nearly enough. A lot of people love their country, but very, very few would risk their own lives to kill in the name of patriotism. I found myself wondering why this guy didn't just make a small fortune restoring art. Silva put Allon in a pretty exclusive club as a world-class art restorer. That might be too much cover, because doing anything else seems foolish. Given the choice between painting and enjoying the English countryside or getting shot at by religious extremists or enemies of state, I think most people would pick the palette.
Even though the characterization is underwhelming the summer blockbuster pace and the well-researched spycraft make Portrait of a Spy a solid read. I wouldn't mind going back to the beginning with Silva's 2000 novel The Kill Artist to see if I simply arrived at the party too late for the character development.