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Daniel Silva's spy character strikes a chord

As author Daniel Silva prepared for his fourth book, he knew the main character would be an Israeli spy. But there was another element he wanted for his character, something he couldn't quite put his finger on — an "other side."
/ Source: The Associated Press

As author Daniel Silva prepared for his fourth book, he knew the main character would be an Israeli spy. But there was another element he wanted for his character, something he couldn't quite put his finger on — an "other side."

Inspiration hit as he and his wife walked down the street of their Georgetown neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and she reminded him they were having dinner with a friend who is an art restorer.

"I stopped dead in my tracks. I said, 'That's it,'" Silva recalled.

That evening he told a friend: "Listen, I have this crazy idea — I want to turn this Israeli assassin into an art restorer."

So began Silva's series featuring Gabriel Allon, not only one of the world's best art restorers, but also a spy and assassin. "The Messenger," Silva's ninth book — sixth in the Allon series — was published this summer by G.P. Putnam's Sons. Like his previous books, it's a national best seller.

In "The Messenger," Silva has Allon infiltrating the world of a Saudi Arabian billionaire who financially backs terrorism.

"When I created him I never had any idea he was going to be a continuing character," said Silva during a recent stop in Dallas to promote his book. "I was concerned about — as much as I thought he was a great character — whether it was going to really work long-term for an American audience."

Before becoming a novelist, Silva was a journalist — first with United Press International and then with CNN. But by the mid-1990s, the man whose career had included reporting from the Middle East knew it was time to do what he'd wanted to since he was young: write a book.

While working as the executive producer of the unit at CNN in Washington that produced "Crossfire," "The Capitol Gang" and other political talk shows, he began writing, mostly in the early mornings before heading to work.

It took him about a year to get a first draft of "The Unlikely Spy," a World War II spy novel published in December 1996.

After his second novel, "The Mark of the Assassin," about a CIA agent, Silva became a full-time novelist. He followed that book with another about the agent.

Then he began writing "Gabriel books." Silva intended to move on from the series after five books, but his fans wouldn't let that happen. When word of the plan slipped, they were quick to voice their disappointment.

He realized he'd definitely made a mistake when he told a friend during a Passover celebration that Gabriel was gone. The friend replied: "So you're not going to write about the people that we've all come to know and love?"

The next day he told his editor, "I've got to bring Gabriel back."

"I think it's easy to underestimate how important a character is to you in terms of being able to write the way you want to write," he said.

He knew he made the right decision. "Not only are readers attached to him, but I'm very deeply attached to him."

In Allon, Silva has created a complicated protagonist. The man whose job means assassinating enemies is also a father who grieves for the son who died in a car bomb attack.

"He's a good character for our times, in that he engages in the war on terrorism with a profound reluctance and with eyes wide open about what it does to oneself and one's country when one climbs into the gutter and fights the terrorists at their level," said Silva, who reads about 50 books as research for each of his novels.

As he studied art restoration, it occurred to Silva that there were numerous similarities between restoration and assassination.

"As I learned more about it, it seemed to me that assassination and restoration had these wonderful characteristics in common with each other: attention to detail, patience, the fact that restorers can use technology to peer beneath the surface of a painting and see what's really going on down there," he said.

Dealing with subjects like the Holocaust, terrorism and current world events comes naturally to the former newsman.

"I learned early that my books needed to be about something," he said. "I'm a serious writer working in a thriller mode."

‘A guilty pleasure for me’Allon's popularity lies in his complexity, his skill at being an agent combined with his ambivalence about that job, said Neil Nyren, Silva's editor.

"He's always got that tug going back and forth within," said Nyren, senior vice president, publisher and editor-in-chief of Putnam's.

"People who read thrillers and mysteries — they just love a character they can fall in love with and follow as the character changes," Nyren said. "When you have a character as complex as Allon, people follow him basically everywhere."

Silva, 45, was born in Michigan, grew up in California and graduated from Fresno State University with a degree in political science and journalism.

Married to NBC correspondent Jamie Gangel, he writes from his Georgetown town house. On a typical day, he gets up early to write, takes a midday break to exercise and pick up his 11-year-old twins — a boy and a girl — from school. He then works until late afternoon.

Allon's espionage takes him to such locales as Tel Aviv, Israel; Venice, Italy; Montreal, Canada; London and Zurich, Switzerland, and Silva travels extensively to research the books. His itinerary for the next Allon novel — set for release next summer — includes London; Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and Copenhagen, Denmark.

"He's a guilty pleasure for me," Silva said. "All of the things that I'm interested in — art, the history of the Middle East, the Holocaust, the history of Zionism — all flow through this character."

"He's really just a vehicle for me to indulge in all of my passions," he said with a laugh.