The Black Widow: Novel, Screed, or Clarion Call?


By Daniel Silva
HarperCollins, 517 pages

This is the 16th book in Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series, though you need not have read any of the others to appreciate it. For those who don't know Allon, he's an urbane, sophisticated, and deadly Israeli master spy—think a more compact and domesticated version of James Bond. In this novel, Allon is rumored to have been killed in his last assignment. Actually, he's trying his best to be retired and is living a secluded life—a necessity for a man every Muslim terrorist would love to murder—with his Italian wife Chiara, recently born twins, and his other passion: art restoration.  He has no desire to get back in the game and, frankly, he's getting a bit long in the tooth for such activities.

Gabriel's plans go awry when he inherits a Van Gogh—the hard way. An ISIS bomb explodes in the Marais district of Paris and kills dozens of people, including the woman who entrusted her priceless Van Gogh to Gabriel. French intelligence is paralyzed and Israeli intelligence wants Allon to takeover for longtime head Uzi Navot, whom they view as past his sell-by date. This sets the stage for a sprawling novel that takes us from Paris and Israel to Beirut, Syria, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Washington, DC. Israeli intelligence knows that something much bigger is afoot and Allon's job is to bring down an ISIS cell headed by a mysterious figure known by his nom de guerre, Saladin.

This time, though, Allon needs information, not a daring assassin. Little is known about Saladin except his penchant for recruiting revenge-seeking "black widows," women who have lost husbands, boyfriends, fathers, and brothers in the terror wars and blame Israel for their heartaches. In short, Allon needs an insider. To that end, he recruits Dr. Nathalie Mizarhi, a multilingual French Jew, and transforms her into Dr. Leila Hadawi, a Palestinian black widow. It's a dangerous game for many reasons: Mizarhi sees herself as apolitical, she'll be beheaded if caught, and even if she's not, Saladin likes to turn female recruits into suicide bombers.

Allon is clever and his network strong, but is Saladin his Professor Moriarty? The book's drama is gripping, Silva masterfully builds the suspense, his characters have depth, and he throws in many unexpected twists that take you places you wouldn't expect. For many readers, though, Silva's politics will cause as much anxiety as his plot. In an afterword Silva pulls no punches when asserting that that ISIS and much of the Muslim world is engaged in a literal crusade against the West. The novel's U.S. president is clearly modeled on Barack Obama, and Silva sees him as a naive fool who thinks the US can ignore ISIS and disengage from the Middle East. The French are hogtied, the British are inept, and the Dutch and Belgians are clueless about the severity of the threats in their midst. Where analysts see dozens of terrorists hiding in places such as the Molenbeek section of Brussels, Silva sees thousands. To put it bluntly, The Black Widow is an apocalyptic warning masquerading as a novel.
Is he right? I happen to share Silva's view that Obama's worldview was/is overly optimistic, but it's also easy to tar Silva's as hysteria bordering on paranoia. I'll get back to politics, but for review purposes, how good is this novel? The answer, in my view, is that it's a mixed effort—an assessment that is surely open to the charge that my own take on terrorism lies between those of Barack Obama and Daniel Silva. Silva is a skilled writer whom we must take seriously within the suspense/spy/thriller genres. Past Gabriel Allon novels work very well in part because the dance between heroes and villains operates within the relatable intimacy of personal encounters-even when broader networks are involved. ISIS is a different lump of gefilte fish. Saladin has a personality, but ISIS does not—it's more akin to the swarm mind of the Borg in Star Trek. Its objectives are nihilistic and annihilistic. Saladin aside, The Black Widow has too many villains without faces. In addition, critical parts of the novel seem like something out of the movie Independence Day.

Readers ultimately face questions of whether this is a work of fiction, or a screed—a novel, or a call to arms. Silva tries to have it both ways, but I am torn as to whether he has chosen the right forum to promote mobilization. But then again, I am also torn between the feeling that Silva is overly alarmist and the gnawing fear that maybe he's not.

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