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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

Daniel Silva Previews His Latest Gabriel Allon Thriller, The Heist

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HH: It’s Hugh Hewitt with one eye on the deteriorating situation in the Middle East. I’m pleased to welcome back Daniel Silva, the extraordinarily successful author of thrillers, number 14 in the Gabriel Allon series, The Heist, which is now available in some stores, at www.amazon.com, and I have linked it at Hughhewitt.com. Daniel, welcome back. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you in the summertime, though I wish the circumstances were different today.

DS: It’s good to hear your voice, and I sure wish the circumstances were different, too.

HH: I don’t know that you’ve ever dealt with Gaza in any of the 14 Allon novels. Have you?

DS: No, he is, he went, we saw him go to Ramallah once in a book called Prince of Fire many years ago at this point. But no, you know, it’s just not part of who Gabriel Allon is. I mean, Gaza and the West Bank are really the province of the other service in the Israeli system, Shabak or Shin Bet. But Gaza is, as we can see tonight, it is the target of you know, the centerpiece of yet another clash between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I’m afraid this one is, looks like it’s going to escalate before it deescalates.

HH: It does, and there are Syrian-made missiles involved, which does connect us, of course, to The Heist.

DS: Well, you can see some really interesting pictures that I was just watching tonight. These are not the sort of first generation homemade rockets that were coming out of Gaza a few years ago. This is much more sophisticated stuff. And you saw sort of a battery of short-range missiles atop a pickup truck that was firing in rapid sequence to try to overwhelm Iron Dome. And you know, as the Prime Minister said, I mean, can you imagine any other country on Earth absorbing missile strikes and not responding with significant force?

HH: Of course, not. And he also said tonight…

DS: And once again, we’re hearing the calls for restraint, and you know, this sort of moral equivalency that drives people like me crazy.

HH: And me. The Prime Minister said tonight that Abbas is nuts to be going to the International Criminal Court when the International Criminal Court ought to be hearing war crimes charges against Hamas for firing rockets at civilians. It is a war crime. But let’s got to The Heist, Daniel Silva, I was asked earlier today on Twitter how did the book rank, and of course, you’d have to reread all 14. But I said if it’s not his best, it’s among his top two or three.

DS: Really?

HH: That would be expected….

DS: Wow.

HH: …given that you get better at any craft that you practice. But are you, do you feel that way? I think The Heist is really remarkable on a number of levels.

DS: Yeah, I have personal favorites. I have, it’s difficult for me to see books in their totality. And I look at books and I think of individual sort of scenes and sequences in novels that I really like what I did, or I can appreciate with a little bit of time and space what I did. But it’s difficult for me to try to rank them. I will, I’ve said publicly that A Death In Vienna is my favorite of the Allon novels. I thought The Messenger was a pretty good book, and I thought Moscow Rules was a pretty good book. But I’ve been hearing sort of the first reads and first reviews coming back at me. In fact, the lead book buyer for Barnes & Nobles tweeted or put something on their website that this is my best novel. It’s very satisfying to hear that, that at this stage in your career, and at this stage of a series in particular, that I can produce works, you know, this is number 14 in the Allon series, and so that if people might think this is the best in the Allon series, that’s quite an accomplishment.

HH: And the reason I think it is, is that there’s so much texture after 14 books that when you surprise your readers, you surprised me, with a complete misdirection. I just had no idea where the book was going, but was absorbed in the story thinking to myself at the very beginning, wait a minute, Allon is supposed to be running the Office. Wait a minute, this is an obvious trap, and then to be totally head-faked into where we ended up, but pulled along at the speed of as fast as I could read. Well, that’s a great compliment. A couple of small details, as I always tell the audience, I won’t give away anything. I will not give away…

DS: We’ll try not to.

HH: We’ll try not to. But a couple of small details, a beautiful line that you have Shamron say on Page 238. “I am the worst thing a man can be – old and obsolete. I am a bystander. I am under feet.” It’s a beautiful line, and you know, I’ll bet you old spies feel that way.

DS: I think it’s very difficult for someone in his position who I mean quite literally, you know, whatever you feel about the state of Israel, whether it was just, whether it should exist, okay, set all that aside, but that a small group of men and women went into this place and created and built a country, and it’s this country that we see today of 8.2 million people with this modern economy, and a modern economy that’s under siege at the moment. But for someone like Ari Shamron, it’s his baby. He helped to build it. He helped to bring it into existence. He helped to defend it. And I think that it must be difficult for him, I know it’s difficult for him, to sort of let go of the reins and to face his own mortality. And as he ages, I can’t really ever imagine the books without him there. I do believe that Ari Shamron, with all due respect to Gabriel Allon, is the most important character in the series.

HH: Yeah, and that’s why the cameo is so touching. At the same time, the reality of the book in real time is that people grow old and they grow under foot. And I’m curious, have you had a chance to read Steven Pressfield’s The Lion’s Gate, yet?

DS: I have not.

HH: Well, when you do, you’ll see that there are a lot of these old warriors who are now talking about their ’67 experiences and their ’56 experiences, and it’s amazing. The second thing I wanted to detail in the first segment, on Page 240, archaeologist Eli Lavon pulls out 36 gold coins from the Byzantine era in the dig along the wall in the tunnel that I have walked through on your recommendation, and a large medallion with a menorah, proving Jews were living here before the Muslim conquest in Jerusalem in 638. I’m always curious. Is that a real detail, or is that a…

DS: It is a real detail. I moved that discovery a couple hundred meters from where it was actually found, and pushed it closer to the walls of the Old City. But yeah, we did make that find a couple of years ago.

HH: I love details like this. I just tell you I think that, and I’m glad to ratify them, because you make points in the course of an entertaining story that must be made and remembered about Israel. Before the conquest by Islam of Jerusalem, the Jews were living there.

DS: Without question. Without question.

HH: And people always, they always ask me as well when they know that I’ve got the early copy of the Silva novel, who are the artists. And I said, well, there are many artists in this book. But the two that stand out are Caravaggio and Van Gogh. And of course, that makes it…

DS: With a little touch of Veronese. Don’t forget poor Paolo.

HH: Yeah, I won’t, but that makes it a big seller, right? These are, you couldn’t have picked, these two are not, they don’t do a lot for the general reputation of the emotional stability of artists.

DS: You know, it’s just interesting that there were these parallels between the two of them. I think that look, Van Gogh was not a swordsman and a street brawler like Caravaggio was. But he did have his own demons and his own violent intemperate streak. And they do sort of fit into this narrative that flows through the book of the intersection of art, wealth and violence.

HH: And in the minute to the break, tell us the Caravaggio real story that is the beginning and the plot point for The Heist.

DS: Well, the real story is that in October, 1969, one of the last known works by Caravaggio, the Nativity, as it was known, was stolen from a small chapel in Palermo, and no one but the thieves has seen it to this day. And it is sort of the white whale, the holy grail of stolen art. And if you look at the FBI’s most wanted missing paintings, there’s the Caravaggio at the top. And I’ve wanted to write about that painting, and to get Gabriel involved in the quest for it, for some time. And events conspired this year to have me do it.

HH: Oh, and it is wonderful what the backstory to the backstory to the backstory is.

— – – –

HH: La Boheme is the music that Gabriel Allon is listening to as The Heist opens, Daniel Silva’s brand new and soon to be, I’m sure, number one bestselling book on the New York Times’ list, The Heist. And it’s a curious choice. I wanted to ask if in your imagined world the other restorers at work in the church also bring along their own music, or do they have to get used to, or yield to Gabriel?

DS: I think they yield to Gabriel. He’s, you know, I created this character with all my own instincts, and I once had a conversation with a psychiatrist who has treated numerous people with what is known as second-general Holocaust survivor syndrome. And she sat me down, and she said you know, all these characteristics that you gave to the guy are textbook traits of someone who suffers from that disorder. And as readers of the series know, Gabriel’s mother is a Holocaust survivor, and he was raised in a small home with her, and it was very traumatic, and it left a mark on him.

HH: And I would like people to know as well, I’ve been interviewing Daniel Silva once a year since 2008, and most of those interviews have been transcribed, and are available, and people can listen to them. But we just added, for example, four stations in Montana, Daniel, so some people won’t have heard of who Gabriel Allon is. And he is the arch-predator of the Israeli secret service abroad, Mossad. He was the man dispatched to kill the terrorists who struck at Munich in 1972.

DS: Right.

HH: And why don’t you, the brief outline, the details that people should know as we talk about this book.

DS: And well, he also carried out one of the other major operations, assassinations that was attributed to the Mossad and the Israeli secret services, and that was the killing of Abu Jihad, the number two in the PLO in 1988. And that action led to a PLO retaliation against Gabriel and his family. So his son was killed, and his wife was gravely wounded. And after that attack on his family, he sort of slipped out of the orbit of Israeli intelligence for many years. And when the series opened in 2000 with the first entry in the Allon series, a book called The Kill Artist, he was sort of a hermit, and living in England, and working as a restorer, and living as an Italian in England. And the series has just been his story of his reintroduction into the Israeli secret service and the operations that have taken place in those intervening years. And he now stands on the precipice of actually being the chief of Israeli intelligence. He will be…

HH: And he has grown through the 15 years.

DS: Oh, my gosh, he’s a completely different character, yeah, completely different character.

HH: If I’m not mistaken, is this the first book in which he does not commit himself an act of violence?

DS: You know, he, I don’t really think that he, he did, I have to really think about it, but he didn’t, he did not kill anyone in the last book, either.

HH: Yeah, I don’t know if he struck anyone.

DS: And so I guess, I go ahead and let, though, but this one, I don’t actually think he even lays a hand upon anyone.

HH: No, that’s it. There’s no act of violence at all. Of course, he’s plotting big acts of violence….

DS: Yeah.

HH: …and big, big things. But he is not himself, and that’s what happens when you age. The other thing is you make a choice in these books whether or not he goes to visit his wife, his first wife.

DS: Right, it’s whether events warrant it.

HH: And he went.

DS: And this one was a biggie.

HH: This is hard. Why do you do…that’s hard on the reader. Why…and I imagine it’s hard to write. Why do you do that?

DS: Because he felt that he owed it to her to try to tell you in whatever way she could comprehend that he was going to be a father again. And she has only a vague grasp on what is really happening around her. And it was just something that he felt that he had to do. And it was one of the reasons why, and I internalize his emotions to such an extent that I was always really reluctant to ever let him be a father again, because I can’t imagine what it would be like to tell her. And I had to sort of walk up to it and write it, and it was just the most heartbreaking scene. But they all are. I love Leah. I love Leah.

HH: Yeah, and it’s a very touching scene, as is the conversation with the doctor. I don’t want people to think it’s a morbid book, though. It’s not.

DS: No, not at all. It’s actually a lot of fun.

HH: Actually, it moves along, no, it moves along, and I love the line that Italy has been blessed with two things in abundance – art and professional criminals. And they come together a lot.

DS: Yes, they do.

HH: And I gathered you know all these people who chase all the professional art thieves.

DS: Well, Italy, as you’ve been there, and as many of our listeners have, I mean, these towns and villages are just, these churches are chock full of amazing art. And they’re, a lot of them are very poorly protected. Italy was really the first country in the West to put together a police unit really dedicated exclusively to art crimes. So you have all the art from the Renaissance, pre-Renaissance, and after, but then you have all the antiquities as well. Italy is, of course, loaded with Roman antiquities, but also Greek and Etruscan and all kinds of stuff is buried within the soil of Italy. And there are lots of criminals who make a pretty good living stealing it, digging it up, smuggling it and selling it to people who are not worried about things like paperwork and provenance.

HH: And the rule of thumb that you recite is that a work on the black market will sell for 1/10th of its value on the…

DS: That is the rule of thumb. That is a rule of thumb.

HH: And you can park a lot of money in a very small canvas if you’re trying to move…is that what in fact happens sometimes? That’s the premise of the novel.

DS: Well, there is a lot of debate within the community about what really happens to stolen paintings. And there’s no question that a great deal of art finds its way from galleries and homes into the hands of dirty dealers who pretend that it is a, you know, a painting that was newly discovered or whatever. Whatever fictions you want to spin, and that they sell it. There is another school of thought that these big masterpieces, these big paintings that we see, Van Goghs that get stolen, and you know, priceless works of art, that they end up being used as a form of sort of underworld currency, sort of traveler’s checks for the criminal class, and that a painting will be used to front, you know, a down payment for drugs, weapons or all kinds of things.

HH: Wow.

DS: It’s a dirty business.

HH: Amazing details on a very dirty, but interesting business in Daniel Silva’s new book, The Heist.

— – – –

HH: That is Mozart’s Symphony #36, which features in Daniel Silva’s brand new book, The Heist, because it was composed in Linz, and Linz, Austria, is central to this story.

DS: Yeah.

HH: And before we go there, I have to tell you, because of your earlier novel, I visited Stadttempel last summer.

DS: Oh, good.

HH: And it was an amazing experience. But I also hired an Austrian guide for the rest of the tour to take my wife and our friends around. And as we emerged from this very touching Stadttempel tour, which he had never been on, the Austrian guide, he made an anti-Israeli remark.

DS: Of course, he did.

HH: And it stunned me. And then in your book, you write, he wondered, Gabriel Allon, not for the first time, about Austria, how such a devoutly Roman Catholic land could have played such an outsized role in the murder of six million. It was in their bones. They drank it with their mother’s milk. And after that experience, I’m with you.

DS: It’s, I say this as someone who has a great deal of affection for the country itself. I love Vienna, I love Salzburg and the mountains and the lakes and the vineyards. And I just adore the place. But there is no question that the truth that Austrians did play an outsized role in the Holocaust. They were heavily represented in death camp commanders and the hierarchy of the SS, and Hitler, of course, and Eichmann, of course, and that to this day, there is just a, it’s just there’s an undeniable anti-Semitism that’s deeply ingrained in the country.

HH: Well, let’s think about the astonishing, a guy like me calls up and says I want a tour, and I need you to get me into the Stadttempel, and so we go there, and then a group of 12 of us leave, and he just casually throws off an anti-Israel remark. I don’t know if I’d call it anti-Semitic. My friend, Donna, almost tackled him.

DS: Yeah.

HH: But the casualness of it…but now, tell us about Linz, because this was where Hitler was going to build his grand museum. And you put a crucial sequence into Linz.

DS: I did. As a bit of background, I mean, European private banking has changed dramatically in the last few years, as we and the EU have sort of put pressure on these banking centers to be more transparent so we can go out and try to find all these tax evaders and tax cheats. But Austria really was and is a serious banking center. And its banking secrecy was even stronger than that of Switzerland. And I chose it as the place to set a crucial sequence in the novel that deals with private banking. And someone who was hiding assets linked to the unnamed but, the president of Syria and his family, and that is where The Heist takes us eventually. And that is a hunt, a search for assets.

HH: And I’m curious, yeah, we’re going to come to that in the next segment, but I’m curious about when you wrote that the 2008 financial crisis obliged some private banks to deal with characters they might not otherwise have dealt with, is that a device that you invented? Or is that a fact that you came upon?

DS: I don’t recall where I said that, but in 2008, I mean, a lot of private banks, small boutique banks, we’ll call them, really, really took a huge hit, and were really exposed. And in my fictitious private bank that I created, Bank Weber AG of Linz, Austria, he took such a hit in the financial collapse that he needed a partner. And he picked the wrong guy.

HH: He picked the wrong guy, but one of the great things about The Heist is it does illustrate the massive amount of corruption in the oil world. You write despite massive oil wealth, 1/5th of the Arab world survives on less than $2 dollars a day. 65 million Arabs, the majority of them women, could not read or write, and millions receive no schooling at all. This despite this massive wealth, and 30 seconds to the break, Daniel Silva, it has to go somewhere. It doesn’t stay in those countries.

DS: No, it’s in too many places. It flows into the hands of the ruler and his family, and it ends up parked overseas. I lived in Cairo for a couple of years. We knew that the Mubaraks were rich people. But $70 billion dollars by most estimates when he was taken down? $70 billion dollars? He was one of the richest men in the world.

HH: Yeah, second only to Putin, perhaps, who’s also in the book again.

— – – – –

HH: Etta James, Trust In Me, is reference in passing in the book during the recruitment of a central character, a recruitment made easier, and we noted this, Daniel Silva, by social media. Both Duane and I noted that you may not be a fan of social media, and you’re giving a warning to the world in this book.

DS: Yeah, that I’m a broken record at this point, but there is no delete. And you think you might delete it, but everything you do on social media stays there forever. And in this case, Israeli intelligence was able to learn a great deal about a potential recruit by what she had posted about herself on her social media pages. And it just stands to reason, I mean, that it’s got to be an incredibly valuable resource. I mean, look, employers look at it. We know that, that most major employers have firms that look through the social media pages of potential hires to see what’s going on in there.

HH: Yeah.

DS: And my guys did that when they were looking at a woman that they wanted to recruit. And they learned from her social media pages that she was sort of a little bit unhappy, and a little lonely. And they gave her a friend.

HH: They gave her a friend.

DS: And they gave her a friend, and that friend turned out to be an Israeli intelligence officer who was the bridge to Gabriel Allon, and she agreed to work for them and to give them information about the man she was working for.

HH: Now I also want to tell people, the reason I think The Heist is more than just a novel is it will oblige the reader to consider is only for a period of time how awful the Syrian war is. I won’t call it a civil war. It’s a butchery. I mean, tonight, there are 40-50 dead people in Gaza, there are three dead Israeli teenagers from last week. These are horrible, terrible murders.

DS: Yeah.

HH: On the other hand, the scale of the Syrian atrocity, and of the killing of the Assad family dating back, you give a brief history of the Assad family, and it’s only five pages long. It’s remarkable. Could you please explain Hama rules to people so that they understand what that reference? I’ve been reading about it for years. I never understood it until I read The Heist.

DS: Well, Hama is this city in Syria north of Damascus that has been long a hotbed of the Muslim Brotherhood. And about, oh, seven years after Assad assumes power in 1970, things get really ugly in Syria. And a lot of this isn’t really known to the outside world. But there were bombings on a weekly basis, and Assad was under a great deal of pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood. And in 1982, after a series of pretty bad attacks, he’d had enough, and he sent his brother in there, and they leveled the place. And they killed at least 20,000 people. And then they bulldozed the place and paved it over. It was just an unbelievable atrocity. They killed everybody. And they people, most of the victims did not die in the actual siege of Hama, but they were sort of executed afterwards. And it was a terrible, terrible few days in the history of the Middle East. But he never faced another challenge.

HH: It was Rome dealing with Carthage.

DS: He never faced another challenge from them after that.

HH: Yeah.

DS: And those are the Hama rules. If you are challenged, act ruthlessly, swiftly, and with incredible violence.

HH: But then, his older son dies, along comes the butcher boy, and there’s hope for him. And you recount not the Alawites, the Alawites who are this small clan, a small sect, run Syria as a private business. You also write, though, and this is very important, like the great powers of the West, Israel had always preferred the Arab strongman to the Arab Street.

DS: Right.

HH: It had never made peace with an Arab democrat, only dictators and potentates.

DS: Right, right.

HH: Now that is also our story, and we have to face it again with ISIS in the west of Iraq, and…

DS: Right.

HH: …Bashar Assad. What’s your advice?

DS: My advice is that it might be tempting to latch onto the Assads and the Saddams and the Mubaraks and the Qaddafis, because maybe it would be nice to go back to that safe place where these guys were keeping a lid on it. But it’s really a false choice, that at this point, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. And remember that the Muslim Brotherhood and Osama bin Laden, and all the problems that we faced, were a direct result of that, in my opinion, of Islam being crushed down by secular dictators. We have got to find some middle ground. There is, I believe that there is a segment of the Arab world that desperately wants to join the modern world. It wants a decent governance, clean governance, modern governance. I mean, listen, this last swathe on the Planet Earth that is rules like this. And it’s in utter chaos right now. And it’s going to be a messy process. We don’t know where it’s going, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that if we could just turn back the clock and go back to kings and dictators not listening to their people, abusing their people, stealing the money from their people, torturing their people, that this is going to somehow solve the problem in the Arab corner…

HH: I know, but so you illustrate the complication, because when Hama was leveled, it was because it was a Muslim Brotherhood neighborhood. And one of your characters ends up living on Marienstrasse, number 57, in Hamburg, which is Mohamed Atta’s street.

DS: Yeah.

HH: …that that genie is out of that bottle as well, Daniel Silva.

DS: It is. And that, look, this whole conflict really threatens to spill into Western Europe, and that is, it’s actually taking place right now. And so many Western Europeans are finding their way to the Syrian battlefield, and they’re checking their passports on the way in, in Turkey, and so we know now that groups like ISIS and the Nusra Front, they have their hands on Western European passports. And they have made it very clear that when they’re done with the caliphate, they’re coming after us. So there’s going to be blowback. There’s going to be spillover. And we’ve got to…

HH: Chilling, chilling, chilling. The Heist will get you an early alert.

— – – –

HH: I want to thank my guest, Daniel Silva, for his annual trip here to talk about his book, The Heist. As I said at the beginning of the show, if it’s not his best, it’s among the top two or three. And it’s the first time I’ve ever said this, you don’t really have to begin with The Kill Artist. I think you can read this as a standalone. Go and read it this summer because of the timeliness of the book is so important. Two final comments, Daniel, you did a very hard thing. You introduced a new character into the family, and I love Bella. I love Bella. And how hard was it…

DS: She’s an old character. She’s just never really come on big before.

HH: Right, but she’s now integral to the team.

DS: Yeah, yeah. And but Syria was her brief. She’s a Syria expert, and she was a natural. And it was a lot of fun to bring her onto the page.

HH: Now the last question has to do with the way that television has changed. We’ve seen House of Cards, we’ve seen Game of Thrones. I used to think that Gabriel Allon had to show up on the big screen. But now I think it’s a Netflix series. Or has anyone approached you about new television and these 14 amazing stories?

DS: Yes, obviously. And so it’s, I’m, all I can say is that, to quote Jerry Seinfeld, wheels are in motion, things are happening. I’m going to be very careful, though. He’s my baby. This series is my baby. And when you, when I make a decision to dive in and do this, it entails selling the rights to my entire literary legacy, because all of the books are interconnected. It’s a big thing.

HH: It worked with George R.R.R. Martin, though. It has worked with Game of Thrones, and I just began to think if you find the right people, they could, it could be epoch television as well as epic fiction.

DS: I agree.

HH: Daniel Silva, thank you. I hope you get a vacation, and is your book tour listed at www.danielsilvabooks.com?

DS: It is. And it begins in New York on Tuesday night, and I’ll let you in on a little secret, that my wife is actually going to interview me at Barnes & Noble in New York City on Tuesday night. My wife is a veteran journalist from NBC News, and so it’s going to be a little bit like a root canal, but it’ll be highly entertaining, I promise.

HH: Yeah, she knows all the secrets. She’s Bella interviewing Uzi.

DS: Exactly. Exactly.

HH: So that’s a very interesting prospect. Congratulations, and are you going to Houston? My friends Christina and Steve are dying for you to go to Houston.

DS: Yeah, I have actually two appearances in Houston.

HH: Oh, then you’ll find Christina and Steve when you’re down there. Safe travels, Daniel Silva, congratulations on another just an amazing book, The Heist.

DS: Thank you so much for having me.

HH: Always a pleasure, until next summer.

End of interview.

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