For a while, it seemed as if the end of the Cold War had killed off an entire genre of literature.
When the Berlin Wall fell – not that I cared at the time, being in kindergarten, with my reading mostly limited to stories about animals and cute kids – the spy thriller looked like it was dead.
Any hostel swapshelf will have their books. Len Deighton, John le Carre and so on. The KGB versus the CIA and MI6. James Bond stuff.
But once the KGB ceased to exist and the Warsaw Pact crumbled and capitalism overtook communism, it appeared like all that was gone.
Never fear. Writers have got to write about something, and other enemies were found. After 9/11, there was no problem at all.
The pure spy story, as opposed to the Tom Clancy-style technothriller where the submarines, warships, missiles and tanks take centre stage, has always been an interesting genre.
The spy lives by his – or her – wits. Intelligence in both senses of the word takes over from the gadgets. Information and what to do with it is the story, and at the cutting edge are the secret agents, rarely armed with anything more powerful than their brains, and maybe a pistol.
Human beings have emotions, and families, and friends. When the thoughts and emotions of one person, or a small team, make up the bones of the book, you have a story that can capture the reader. Ramp up the stakes to the fate of nations, the well-being or destruction of millions in the hands of one or two people, and it’s a winning formula.
I have a friend who lives in New York. She put me onto Daniel Silva and his Gabriel Allon series. Every year she goes to the launch event, buys the latest novel, gets it signed, and then dashes home to read it. She lives on the top floor of a New York apartment block – at the end of several steep and narrow flights of stairs that I had to lug my bags up and down when I stayed with her a few years back – and she locks the book in her mailbox on the ground floor so she can get some sleep for the next day.
I began binge-reading the series, now up to 17 with the release this week of The New Girl, some years ago, and I have got to say that it was one of the most intense periods of my reading life. Silva’s tragic character of Israeli spy Gabriel Allon, who also happens to be a master restorer of Old Master paintings, is one of the most unforgettable in all of fiction, let alone the spy genre.
Soon enough, I was soon reduced to spending 363 days each year waiting for the next book, and two days trying to make each most recent release last as long as possible.
I have just finished The New Girl, and it is perhaps the most interesting and complex in the series to date. It begins with the kidnapping of the daughter of a highly-placed figure, one with a close resemblance to a real person on today’s international stage, and continues relentlessly on through a series of climaxes. The release of the hostage would normally come as the final act, but instead this occurs a third of the way through the book, and the rest of the story is concerned with untangling and foiling the complex plot to alter world events.
We meet several familiar characters, and a few new ones. The action takes us from Riyadh to Washington DC, Iran to Israel, and a dozen places in between. There are deaths and injuries, plot twists and double agents, love affairs and awkward moments.
And not a wasted word in the lot.
Apparently it’s not being released in Australia until next week. Probably best not to ask too closely how I managed to get mine. But, whenever it hits the cybershelves in your land, don’t walk but run to get your copy. and the sixteen books previous.
Trust me, you’ll be so glad you did!