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The Ambivalent Assassin

Reviewed by Richard Lipez
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page BW07


By Daniel Silva. Putnam. 369 pp. $25.95

The newly interred get no respect in Prince of Fire, Daniel Silva's fine, sleek thriller, in which the late Yasser Arafat is convincingly depicted as one of the most treacherous goons of the last half-century, a man as murderous as the Sopranos' Paulie Walnuts but not so principled.

Which is not to say that Silva doesn't treat the Palestinian cause with sympathy and understanding, even in a novel with Israeli spy Gabriel Allon as its generally winning hero. One poignantly portrayed Palestinian militant describes her history as "a story of paradise lost -- a story of a simple people forced by the civilized world to give up their land so that Christendom could alleviate its guilt over the Holocaust." Silva's Israeli officials, on the other hand, repeatedly cite the fair deals offered to the Palestinians and rejected by them in 1937, 1947 and the 1990s, and one hard-bitten old Israeli spymaster sees the Palestinians as a tragic people "trapped in their narrative of loss and exile."

The novel is stuffed with opinions and information about the Middle East, and most of it is well-considered and compelling, even when characters halt the action from time to time to address one another in short essays, such as this, from a Palestinian: "The Jews complain bitterly about the centuries they spent in the ghetto, and yet what are you doing with the Separation Fence? You are building the first Palestinian ghetto. Worse still, you're building a ghetto for yourselves." Or when Allon's secret-service mentor Ari Shamron explains how "history dealt us a losing hand" with "just ten percent of Mandatory Palestine" even as the Arabs "aligned themselves with Hitler and cheered our extermination."

While the historical background is thoughtfully laid out, it's the action and the man always at its center that keep Prince of Fire churning along and sometimes doubling back on itself entertainingly. Allon, a suave and athletic art-restorer and spy, has appeared in three earlier Silva novels. In one he saved the pope's life and in another Arafat's. The most recent entry was A Death in Vienna, where Allon's infant son was killed and his wife, Leah, was horribly burned and mentally destroyed. Now, 10 years later, the bomber who caused this damage, Khaled al-Khalifa, has turned up as the chief suspect in the devastating bombing of the Israeli embassy in Rome. So Allon is persuaded to leave off the restoration of a Rubens altar piece in Venice and eliminate -- shoot dead -- his old nemesis before he can pull off a mass attack on civilians elsewhere in Europe.

Part of Allon's appeal is his almost too exquisite moral ambivalence as an assassin. But here any reluctance is easily overcome by his guilt over the fate of his catatonic wife. "Leah," Allon tells himself, "had been punished for his sins. Leah was the price a decent man had paid for climbing into the sewer with murderers and terrorists."

So Allon sets out after the driven, cunning Khaled, who, we soon learn, is acting under orders from the invidious Arafat, an old chum and father figure. Plausibly, Allon and his Israeli-agent back-up team mostly employ standard police methods -- squeezing informants, tireless file-sifting and leg work, electronic and personal snooping -- to get a bead on Khaled, who is no slouch himself in the departments of staying informed and manipulating both people and appearances. The cat-and-mouse game between Khaled and Allon is terrifically well done -- with the action shifting from Tel Aviv to Rome to Cairo to Paris -- and Leah's role in all this turns suddenly, frighteningly direct.

Though he handles them better than most espionage writers, Silva is not above dishing up some of the hoariest clichés of the genre. With Leah having sat mute for 10 years in an English mental hospital, Allon has taken up with the knockout Venetian Chiara Zolli (who also works for "the office"), a woman with eyes that are "deep brown with flecks of gold" and "shimmering" hair that "spilled riotously about her shoulders." No merely presentable women will do for our thriller heroes. Allon himself is told by Shamron, "Your mother named you Gabriel for a reason. Michael is the highest [angel], but you, Gabriel, are the mightiest. You're the one who defends Israel against its accusers. You're the angel of judgment -- the Prince of Fire."

It's a shame Allon doesn't snicker at this who-was-that-masked-man baloney. But thriller readers are used to it and easily forgive such excesses in the hands of a writer otherwise as talented and intelligent as Daniel Silva. •

Richard Lipez writes detective fiction under the name Richard Stevenson.

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