Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Portrait of a Spy -- Daniel Silva

My normal policy for book reviews is to include passages from the book in question. Unfortunately, I can't do that here -- I listened to Portrait of a Spy on audiobook. It's not the sort of title I'd pick up normally, but I saw a little article in Parade magazine (my Sunday morning obsession -- it's the first part of the paper I go for) on the best new audiobook titles, and it sounded interesting: an aging Israeli spy who works as an art restorer is recruited for one last mission. I decided to use one of my credits and give it a whirl.

The book certainly didn't disappoint. Gabriel Allon, happily retired to Cornwall, is just beginning work on a newly discovered (and badly damaged) Titian when he happens to witness a terrorist attack in Covent Garden. If Allon had been left to his own devices, the attack would have been thwarted and everyone would have gone on their merry way. Instead, however, he is arrested, the suicide bomber succeeds in his deadly mission, and Allon discovers that his quiet seaside life is soon to be a thing of the past.

Allon and the British intelligence services quickly realize that the Covent Garden massacre is just one in a series of attacks masterminded by a former CIA asset and radical Muslim cleric. He is bankrolling his entire operation with "philanthropic donations" to a variety of seemingly innocuous Islamic charities that are really covers for underground terror groups. Allon and the others realize that, to stop this threat at its source, they must follow the money trail -- and to do that, they must find a way to infiltrate the coffers of these charities without being suspected. To do so, Allon and his team turn to an unlikely resource for the Islamic world: a woman.

From here, the book starts moving at breakneck speed. I don't want to reveal too much more about the plot, since that will ruin the entire point of reading a thriller. I really liked the little bits of art history woven throughout the story, and I felt like I got caught up on some current events (the story is set in present day and even makes reference to the recent political upheavals in the Middle East). I was also impressed that, though this is the 11th book in a series about Gabriel Allon, I had no trouble jumping into the story (and, in fact, had no idea there were previous books until after I had finished). It's always interesting to read about American politics and policy from an outside perspective.

The negatives? Not great writing, to be sure. This is no literary work of genius by any stretch of the imagination, so there's no languishing over beautiful turns of phrase. It's a potboiler, pure and simple. I would never purchase such a book to keep in my own collection because I can't imagine ever reading it again. But is it an entertaining read? Sure. If you're looking for something adventurous and fast-paced, and especially something with a political bent, support your local library and check it out there. And if you're looking for a similar title, John LeCarre's A Most Wanted Man will be right up your alley.

Final Verdict: ***

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