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Book Review: The Rembrandt Affair by Daniel Silva

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Spy-Mystery-Thriller writers all have their favorite characters. John Le Carré gave us George Smiley, William F. Buckley introduced us to Blackford Oakes, Jack Higgins writes about Sean Dillon, and of course, there’s Vince Flynn’s creation, Mitch Rapp. But in art restorer-Israeli spy Gabriel Allon, novelist Daniel Silva has a hero for all seasons, shapes, and sizes—a man who is intensely human, fiercely intelligent, and quite good at what he does.

He’s even aging well.

In Silva’s latest book, The Rembrandt Affair, Mr. Allon is wrested from exilic retirement in scenic coastal England and tasked with chasing down a famous portrait—one created on canvas by Rembrandt himself—that has been stolen. In fact, its very theft points to something far more important and sinister than the simple case of a purloined painting—the portrait’s fading image is splattered with fresh blood. Not only that, but the painting is somehow connected to the most egregious evil of the 20th century—the Holocaust.

Along the way, we learn about the dark details of Swiss banking practices and meet a sordid ensemble of profiteers and miscreants and, greed being what it is, there are always those willing to sell out people and nations if the price is right. It has long since been demonstrated that Switzerland’s boast of neutrality while war engulfed the nations of the world in a conflict that ended 65 years ago was specious, to say the least, but penetrating the storied veil of secrecy surrounding financial transactions in places like Zurich remains a daunting task—even for Allon and company.

The Rembrandt Affair details the activities of an eclectic and multi-national group of intelligence theorists and operatives—people who combine classic tradecraft with state of the art techno-savvy. And as the bodies along the trail begin to pile up, evidence points to the involvement, if not leadership of a charismatic and wealthy celebrity—someone who is seen by the masses as a virtual saint. However, Allon and his team uncover information that tells a different story—one of shady deals and past crimes against humanity. They then run against the clock to prevent another potential Holocaust.

As the Iranians lie to the world and work to develop nuclear weapons, Israel, Britain, and the United States combine forces—all behind the scenes and far below any official radar—to carry out a daring operation. The story involves an attractive and inquisitive journalist, who must choose between her love for a powerful man and the truth that is hard for her to hear, much less bear.

From Amsterdam, to Argentina—Jerusalem, to Virginia—Cornwall to Marseilles, the novel bounces like a carnival arcade pinball across the map of the world, but it never strays from compelling plausibility.

Daniel Silva’s writing is the antithesis of the moral equivalency tedium that seeps through the pages of a typical John le Carré book. Silva actually identifies good guys and bad guys. He does paint his heroes with a few flaws, but seldom attaches anything redemptive to characters determined to wreak havoc and cause immeasurable human suffering.

Some—especially the sadly increasing number of people who buy into the notion that Israel is the locus of evil and catalyst for violence in our modern world—will be less than comfortable with the fact that Silva prefers to characterize that vibrant democracy on a small land-island surrounded by a vast and turbulent sea filled with predators as not only a legitimate state, but a moral one, as well. This does not fit with most of the color commentary coming from the United Nations, or even the mixed messages telegraphed by our own State Department and much of the media these days.

About David Stokes