Title: The English Assassin
Author: Daniel Silva
Silva, Daniel (2002) The English Assassin. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
PS3619.I5443 E54 2002b
- Intelligence officers–Fiction.
- Art–Collectors and collecting–Fiction.
- Art restorers–Fiction.
- Art thefts–Fiction.
- Zürich (Switzerland)–Fiction.
Date Updated: August 18, 2017
Review by Janet Maslin
If a book could send picture postcards, The English Assassin would be in a fine position to do so. Daniel Silva’s swift new spy novel achieves a level of globe-trotting that any tourist would admire. London, Paris and Rome are obligatory stopping points, but the story has its roots in the Middle East. It also spends much of its time in Switzerland, where important events take place at a lavish mega-chalet. One of the book’s main characters lives in Portugal, another in the English countryside.
A remote Corsican village is the home of the title character. He may be an accomplished throat slasher, a man “who had been trained by the most efficient killers on the planet,” but he still has a healthy respect for local traditions. After each dirty deed, he finds time to visit an old woman who claims she can absolve his sins and chase away the Evil Eye.
In a thriller like this, he keeps her busy. The English Assassin is a cloak-and-dagger tale that finds much use for the Englishman’s services, even as it pits him against an equally dangerous Israeli operative, Gabriel Allon. Gabriel was also the hero of The Kill Artist, which established the format for this one.
As the earlier book’s title indicates, art and mayhem go hand in hand for Mr. Silva. Gabriel has long been known as being “nearly as good with a gun as he was with a paintbrush,” and he is skilled at restoring museum-quality work when he isn’t dodging hit men. This time, with a nod to the world of classical music, Mr. Silva is able to work at least one Stradivarius into his story, too.
The English Assassin is written in a nimble, efficient style that allows Mr. Silva to cover a lot of terrain. If his version of the world of espionage is less complex and nuanced than that of Alan Furst or John le Carré, it is still an envelopingly treacherous place. Having worked in the Middle East as a correspondent for United Press International and a producer for CNN, he describes an Israeli spy network of great ingenuity, though The Kill Artist emphasized that realm more. This time the action is centered in Switzerland. That nation itself is essentially the book’s villain.
Gabriel is sent to Zurich in his guise as an art restorer and told to meet with a collector named Augustus Rolfe. “The Oriental carpet was faded and very old, and so was the dead man sprawled in the center of it,” Mr. Silva writes of Gabriel’s arrival at Rolfe’s heavily secured home. So much for Rolfe. And as for his wife, Marguerite, she has committed suicide in the book’s prologue after having discovered a terrible secret about her husband. It’s the kind of secret that might have made killing him a better idea, but never mind.
As Gabriel quickly discovers, Rolfe’s house is well protected for a reason. He appears to have been harboring stolen art, with works by Degas, Picasso, van Gogh and more of great art’s usual suspects in a private museum. Why? How? The trail of contraband leads through the world of Swiss banking into the trove of art confiscated by the Nazis.
The book assails the kind of legal system that makes it possible to keep such things hidden. “Switzerland is not a real country,” one of the book’s minor characters tells Gabriel. “It’s a business, and it’s run like a business.” Not for nothing does this book begin with a dictionary definition of gnome (“small, misshapen, dwarflike beings, supposed to dwell in the earth and guard its treasures”).
Conveniently for the book’s emphasis on cultivation, the Rolfes’ daughter turns out to be a beautiful, renowned violinist, Stradivarius and all. So Gabriel joins forces with Anna Rolfe to find her father’s killer, even as the English assassin is hired to watch their every move. As with many stories in this genre, the plot’s destination is of no greater interest than the schemers’ ingenious ways of arriving there. In this case, that means “the miniature supercardioid microphone held by the man dressed as a priest” and assorted bugs, bombs and ambushes. This may not be a moment when violent intrigue makes ideal escapism, but Mr. Silva excitingly delivers his story’s twists and turns.
The English Assassin moves at a brisk clip, with clean, lucid exposition and characters who are thoughtfully drawn. Gabriel may have the inevitable tragic history (a bomb in Vienna that destroyed his family), but he also has attractive aplomb. When recruited for this case by the Israeli intelligence chief, he replies: “Find someone else, Ari. Investigating murder cases was never my specialty. Actually, thanks to you, I excelled at quite the other thing.” That’s an artful way of putting it, from an author who knows his way around art.
 Janet Maslin, BOOKS OF THE TIMES; “Art and Throat Slashing: a World Tour,” New York Times (March 11, 2002)