The Fallen Angel a Page-Turner Detective Novel

The Fallen Angel  (2013)
Daniel Silva
Harper ISBN 9780062073129
* * * *

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.
––Rob Weir


In a World: Flawed Fun

IN A WORLD (2013)
Written and directed by Lake Bell
Team G, 97 minutes, R (language and sexual references)
* * *

In A World takes its title from three signature words uttered by famed Hollywood voice-over artist Don LaFontaine (1940-2008). His were the sepulcher tones that reverberated over some 5,000 movie trailers, many of them B-pictures on the theme of apocalyptic doom. Actress Lake Bell, who wrote, directed, and starred in this film, takes us inside a specialized world that few of us consider–the part of the sound industry devoted specifically to voice. Did you ever wonder what Alan Kalter of The David Letterman Show or Don Pardo of Saturday Night Live do when they are not announcing the Top Ten list or intoning, “Live––from New York…?” Answer: Something else like it. This is how they make their living.

Bell won a Best Screenwriting award at Sundance for In a World, a classic “small” film and one that’s equal parts clever and derivative, funny and lame, bold and predictable. She plays Carol Solomon, a 31-year-old slacker voice coach who still lives with her father in Los Angeles. We meet Carol in a studio where she’s working with Eva Longoria, who can’t seem to enunciate a single intelligible syllable. (Yep­–that’s about right!)  Carol's old man is a Hollywood legend widely regarded as second only to LaFontaine in the voiceover pantheon, though not everyone knows this as he uses the stage name of Sam Soto (get it?). Sam (Fred Melamel) wants Carol to move out so his new girlfriend, Jamie (Alexandra Holden), can move in. It would indeed be awkward as, in good movie industry tradition, the bubbly and bubble-headed Jamie’s a year younger than Carol.

No problem–Carol is such a drifter that it takes all of thirty seconds to stuff her scruffy wardrobe into a laundry bag. She begs her way onto the sofa of a small flat occupied by her sister Dani  (Michaela Watkins) and her husband, Moe (Rob Corddry). Carol uses this base to sustain her so-called career, much of it pursued in a studio where sound engineer Louis (Demetri Martin) toils. He and his ditzy receptionist Nancy (Stephanie Allyne) are maybe the only two people in all of LA who are more awkward, clueless, and bumbling than Carol. Can you predict that Louis and Carol will do a flamingo dance around each other?

Of course you can! You can probably also figure out in advance that Sam’s protégé, the egotistical but dumb-as-a-rock Gustav (Ken Marino), will play the role of Chekov’s gun, and you may well be able to predict who will be “the voice” for a “quadrilogy” directed by Katherine Huling (Geena Davis) that involves a post-male society of female warriors. The latter is a not-so-subtle but funny slap at The Hunger Games and is used as a didactic blunt instrument to explore themes of what modern feminism means (and doesn’t).

Whoa! The latter theme sounds serious, and so it is–sort of. This is ultimately the problem with In a World. Like so many films these days, it tries to do too much and ends up shortchanging a few of its plots. Other storylines emerge, such as sisterly bonding, family scars, professional rivalry, mushy family values, and whether or not Carol is actually Cinderella or just a sloppy gal with a bad wardrobe. Luckily the script has a few gems hidden amidst the bubblegum. It also has a goofy charm. Is it a good film? Probably not. Is it worth seeing? Sure–why not? It takes us inside a world we’d otherwise not glimpse, and there are a few laugh-out-loud moments. The rest is a bit like the Fanta flogged in one of the more ham-handed product placements of recent memory–sweet, but with artificial after notes.  Rob Weir


Wyeth Vertico at Shelburne Museum

Shelburne Museum (Shelburne, Vermont)
Through October 31, 2013

Andrew Wyeth--Soaring: The painting that inspired the exhibit

The Wyeth clan continues to spark debate in the art world. To their fans, they are at the fore of 20th century American realism. To critics, N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) was little more than an imaginative book illustrator; his son Andrew (1917-2007) a superb draftsman, but lousy painter; and Andrew’s son, Jamie (1946-), an undistinguished dabbler derivative of father and grandfather. Of these charges, I am sympathetic only to the last–I have never been a fan of Jamie Wyeth’s work or his use of (to my eyes) garish coloring. I do, however, admire his sense of whimsy.

No matter what the critics say, though, the Wyeths have proved popular with the larger public. Kudos go to Vermont’s Shelburne Museum–a treasure in its own right–for mounting a show that’s not a Wyeth “greatest hits” overview. It’s titled Wyeth Vertigo and contains three dozen works chosen to put viewers off balance, either because of their dizzying perspectives, or because of unsettling of enigmatic themes. In addition to works from N.C., Andrew, and Jamie, there is also one canvas each from N.C.’s assistant, Peter Hurd, and his daughter, Carolyn. Just a few of the works are widely known, which adds to the allure for veteran museum-goers.

Those familiar with the Shelburne Museum know instantly where the “vertigo” idea came from. The museum owns a certifiable Andrew Wyeth masterpiece, Soaring. Andrew worked on it over an eight-year period (1942-50) and when you get see it, you understand why it took so long. First of all, it’s enormous (48” by 87”). Look closely. What you see is constructed of countless dry brush flecks, dots, and squiggles, almost none of which are longer than a fraction of an inch. Think a cross between pointillism and anticipation of dot matrix imagery. It certainly fits the myriad ways one can think of vertigo. Three enormous vultures circle so high above an isolated farm house that their wings dwarf the structure below. Are they hungrily anticipating feasting on a corpse? Is this commentary on the smallness of man in nature and his transitory existence? Or is it just a happenstance event painted from a unique perspective?

The Islander--Jamie Wyeth
There are several ambiguous canvases such as this. What are we to make of dead crows, eerie moonlight, or empty boats? One of the latter, by N. C. Wyeth, is rendered in (for him) rather lurid colors–pinks, purples, red undercoating–and depicts an intact boat just yards from shore. It’s title? The Drowning (1936). Mostly, though, the works on display just challenge us to look at things from skewed angles–from cliffs high above, at sea level, from a bird’s eye view, foreshortening…. We see, for instance, a windswept peninsula from a rocky hilltop as a goat might experience it in The Islander (1976), one of the few Jamie Wyeth paintings that grab me.

N.C. Wyeth--Dark Harbor
A personal favorite was N.C.’s Dark Harbor Fishermen (1943), with its centered-weighted lighting, strong geometric shapes, and shimmery ovals (fish). He did several versions of this scene and this one dazzles. If you muse over it for a moment you realize that the “realist” painter has pulled a visual fast one. He wants you to believe that the night is so dark that the waters are pitch black and we cannot determine where it begins and the sky ends. The seagulls our eyes see as swimming and those we think are flying occupy the same plane. And if’s it’s that dark, where’s the light coming from that manages to spotlight just what we need to see? There’s not a torch or lantern in sight, nor is one reflecting upon a surface. How can we see the bow of the rowboat in the distance, but not the water upon which it floats? Now that’s vertigo for you–a magician’s illusion in which we never notice the manner in which we’ve been tricked!  

Rob Weir