The Fallen Angel (2013)
Harper ISBN 9780062073129
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Gumshoes used to be fairly uncomplicated. They were guys down on their luck and just a cut above the thugs they stalked. To the degree that they had back stories, they involved bouts with the bottle, letting down their partners, and dames that jilted them. Not these days. Modern detectives have complicated biographies and they spend less time getting info from street rats than in using computers and having adventures more akin to James Bond than to Sam Spade. Even by today’s standard, though, Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon stands out. He also happens to be an art restorer and a longtime Mossad agent who first came into view for helping track down and assassinate the Black September scum that murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Islamists, in turn, murdered his own son and brutally disfigured and disabled his first wife. Gabriel, like his archangel namesake, has delivered some messages, though few receivers are likely to confuse them as having come from a deity of choice.
Flash forward to sometime in the very near future, albeit a dystopian one recently marred by a major Islamist terror attack that, among many others, killed the pope. Gabriel finds himself living in Rome with his second wife, the younger and seriously sexy Chiara, and he’s weary of Israel and Mossad’s blood-soaked crusades of vengeance. He wants to retire and devote all his time finishing the restoration of a Caravaggio painting, which he finds transcendent. His daily trips to the Vatican also allow him to spend time with an old friend, Luigi Donati–now Cardinal Donati, a key advisor to Pope Paul VII. All goes according to plan until a Vatican Museum employee, Claudia Andreatti, is found splattered upon the marble floor of the Vatican sanctuary, after hurling herself off a catwalk just below Michelangelo’s famed dome. Donati doesn’t think it’s a suicide and asks Gabriel to investigate, though he tells him not to expect much cooperation. “Rule number one at the Vatican. Don’t ask too many questions.”
Such a statement in a detective mystery is, of course, Chekov’s gun. Naturally, Gabriel is going to ask questions, and the answers he seeks will take him from Michelangelo’s dome to Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock by way of Berlin, Denmark, and Vienna. It will also take him inside the shady finances of the papal curia, the dangerous world of antiquities smuggling, the raw wounds of unrequited love, the sanguinary lusts of both terrorists and the Mafia, and the labyrinthine folds of paranoid minds. And it’s all bigger––much bigger––than the death of Claudia Andreatti.
I have not read Silva’s previous Gabriel Allon novels, of which this is number twelve. Luckily, that’s not a prerequisite, though past readers will be more familiar than I with secondary characters such as Allon’s mentor Ari Shamron, or his archaeologist friend Uzi Navot. The Fallen Angel is a true page-turner that’s about art, archaeology, religion, and history–all set against the simmering backdrop of hatred that is the Middle East. Several reviews have compared the book to The Da Vinci Code, though it should be noted that Silva introduced Gabriel Allon before Dan Brown dusted off Robert Langdon. It is fair, though, to note that Silva, like Brown, often relies upon unlikely leaps of last-second logic and even less likely escapes from certain doom in order to advance the plot and resolve problems. I wonder, though, if such criticisms have much validity. Do we read detective novels for accuracy, or for an adrenaline rush?
If you care about 100% accuracy, there has as yet been no Pope Paul VII, nor have all the Black September operatives been assassinated. Silva is right, though, to associate Black September with Fatah, though the latter vigorously deny it. If you really want to critique Silva, it’s not that he’s a Dan Brown wannabe or that he plays too loose with historical facts, it’s that he clearly thinks most of what is coming out of the Muslim world is dangerous and anti-Western to the core. He may not be wrong about that either––I happen to agree that Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Fateh are all peas from the same poisonous pod––but there are definite earmarks of bias in that he always sees Israel as the aggrieved party and colors passages with a convert’s zeal. (Silva was born and raised Catholic, but converted to Judaism.)
The book’s faults notwithstanding, The Fallen Angel is such a good yarn that it’s easy to understand why it spent such a long time on the New York Times’ bestseller list. I have come late to the Gabriel Allon series, but this one has inspired me to play catch up.