HOUSE OF SPIES
By Daniel Silva
Harper, $28.99, 544 pages
The deadly darkness of international terrorism pervades Daniel Silva’s latest harrowing plot.
Mr. Silva specializes in real horror as he assembles a caste of terrorists and the sort of thing they can do at their worst. He has a writing style that takes no prisoners and the casualty rate is very high. What makes his writing gripping is his capacity to remind readers that those who fight terrorism are just as fierce as those who perpetrate the atrocities.
Mr. Silva is clearly comfortable with atrocities on both sides of an exceedingly grim game. Perhaps the best example of this is the intelligence agent who quite literally will stop at nothing and is troubled by few scruples about the dead he leaves in his wake. Such a man is Peter Marlowe — or Christopher Keller depending on which name he chooses to use. According to British government records Keller has been dead for 25 years as a result of reports of his work in a famous intelligence operation when a homeless Welshman was used as a corpse to feed fake documents to Nazi Germany about the Allied invasion.
In a cast of colorful and usually wicked characters, Keller is a star and his chief talent is to emerge from terrifying situations without a scratch and to take his own kind of revenge. He reacts to an appalling case of inefficient friendly fire by hiding his identity beneath the headdress of an Arab and making his way across his dangerous world to “wash up on the rugged island of Corsica where he fell into the waiting arms of Don Anton Orsati, a crime fighter whose ancient family of Corsican bandits specialized in murder for hire.”
That is how Keller, posing as an olive oil executive, roams Western Europe for 25 years “killing at the don’s behest.” The don and Keller might seem to be a partnership made in heaven except their alliance is closer to hell. Keller is accepted by the Corsicans as one of their own and adopts their ways. And he is reluctant to take a new assignment that takes him into old perils, becoming a British agent once again to cope with a truly terrifying series of terrorist attacks in London and Paris, with stunning loss of life.
An international terrorist known as Saladin is held responsible for the wave of bloody attacks that is sweeping Europe and Keller joints a select group assigned to find and kill the killer. The group includes Gabriel Allon, the chief of Israeli intelligence who is almost as ruthless as Keller yet permits himself a fleeting tolerance for humanity that lets him have a domestic life of his own but does not stop him from torturing to death a member of the terrorist cadre.
The author holds the attention of the reader for more than 500 blood-stained pages in which almost nobody is likable or even human. There are female characters like Olivia and Natalie, and they are of course beautiful and just as ruthless as their male counterparts although disposed to becoming attached to men who use women as they use men.
The background of the erstwhile model Olivia is especially sordid, and even Natalie is a woman no one should turn their back on. Yet they fit into what is undoubtedly a terrible world and it is their capacity for toughness that allows them to survive and even to betray if it suits their purpose.
Nobody said Mr. Silva writes comfortable thrillers, and occasionally the savagery is remarkably cold-blooded. However, he disposes of his clan of vicious villains in a hail of bullets which is probably what they expect if not the way they might always like it. The author has done his research and offers a fascinating insight into the brief live and times of the kind of people who probably don’t expect to live too long. And for that perhaps the reader should be grateful.
• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.
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