The Defector

Title:                      The Defector

Author:                  Daniel Silva

Silva, Daniel (2009). The Defector. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons

LCCN:    2009017613

PS3619.I5443 D44 2009

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      December 4, 2017

Reviewed by Jerry Harkavy[1] Associated Press Aug 30, 2009

Gabriel Allon’s big mistake at the close of Daniel Silva’s 2008 spy thriller, Moscow Rules, was to spare the life of Ivan Kharkov, the ruthless Russian oligarch and arms supplier to al-Qaida.

But it was an astute decision for Silva, one that set the stage for another confrontation between the two mortal enemies and demonstrates anew that the collapse of the Soviet Union doesn’t leave authors short of material to craft suspense-filled conflicts between Russia and the West.

The Defector is the perfect book for fans of well-crafted thrillers, the kind of page-turner that captures the reader from the opening chapter and doesn’t let go.

It’s Silva’s 12th novel and the ninth to showcase the brilliance and daring of Allon, the noted art restorer who occasionally takes an assignment from the Office, Israel’s secret warfare agency modeled after the Mossad.

Allon gets his marching orders while on an extended honeymoon at an Italian villa, where he also is restoring a 17th-century altarpiece for the Vatican. He learns that Col. Grigori Bulganov, the Russian intelligence officer who saved his life and then defected to the West, has gone missing and faces the prospect of execution and burial in an unmarked grave.

The stakes grow higher when Kharkov’s thugs kidnap Allon’s wife, Chiara, herself an Israeli Special Ops agent, from the villa in Umbria, where her two security guards are found dead.

Allon’s assignment takes him at warp speed to the Russian exile community in London, a little-known bank in Switzerland and a villa on Italy’s Lake Como to which he lures Bulganov’s wife to obtain details of her husband’s abduction.

The globe-trotting continues with a visit to a lodge in New York’s Adirondacks that provides sanctuary for Kharkov’s wife and children, then to a dacha in a snowbound birch forest in Russia that offers haunting testimony to Stalin’s butchery 70 years earlier.

Allon and his team get help from the Israelis’ well-placed contacts in Britain’s MI5, which at first suspected that Bulganov was a double agent who defected yet again, this time back to Russia, and in the CIA, which plays a key role in the daring rescue.

As the Cold War becomes a distant memory, spy novels have been forced to adapt.

Silva draws from undisputed master John Le Carré, but without the British author’s projection of moral ambiguity. Silva’s readers can always tell the good guys from the bad.

There’s also a smidgen of James Bond.

Silva, a former wire service correspondent and CNN producer who’s known for the research that informs his novels, spent some time in Russia while working on Moscow Rules. That book and its sequel indicate that the country has a way to go to come to terms with its KGB past.


Review by Kate Ayers[2]

“For Gabriel Allon—a child of Holocaust survivors, a gifted artist and restorer, an assassin and spy—life had been anything but normal.”

How could life possibly be normal, when he possesses the skills of 20 men and the courage to use them? He started young and, from the outset, has fought for what he believes in, winning battles against crushing odds. And he has lost much of what he loved.

Now, months after Gabriel’s daring feats in Moscow Rules[3], in which he rescued the world from a terrifying future, he and his team deserve a well-earned respite. So Gabriel retreats to the rented villa in Umbria, picking up the paint brush once again to continue his art restoration, and taking time to enjoy his wife, Chiara, an Italian woman of striking beauty. She is also a deadly agent for the same Israeli organization Gabriel works for, referred to as simply the Office. Their last harrowing assignment has them both thinking of retirement. Maybe they could settle in, start a family and try to capture a life that at least borders on normal.

Amid such pleasant dreams comes news that Russian defector Grigori Bulganov has vanished from his safe house in London. Grigori saved Gabriel’s life as they fled Russia together. There has been speculation that he returned to his homeland, but Gabriel cannot believe Grigori would go back—at least not voluntarily. That means that he has been snatched or coerced somehow.

The Office gives Gabriel strict orders to stay out of it, but Gabriel owes Grigori. Big time. If not for Grigori, Gabriel might never have been reunited with Chiara, and the world might be a very different place. As always, Gabriel plays by his own rules, following an intuition so keen it could be said he has a sixth sense. He starts with a simple plan, one that should yield maximum benefit for minimum risk.

Grigori’s disappearance starts to look like a form of revenge. He should have kept a low profile, but his craving for attention got the better of him. And he got attention, only not the kind of attention he wanted. Gabriel’s information points him toward Ivan Kharkov, a more than formidable foe. The big problem is that Kharkov is in Russia, and Russia is forbidden ground for Gabriel. Of course, that never stopped him before, nor will it now. It’s all a matter of time. But time is running out.

“Always the waiting…Waiting for a plane or a train. Waiting for a source. Waiting for the Sun to rise after a night of killing. And waiting for Ivan Kharkov…”

There is no question that Gabriel will go after him. But will he succeed? Kharkov is not your average bad guy. This fellow is rich, cunning, well connected, spiteful, malicious, plain nasty, and downright mean. And it’s no surprise that he doesn’t take well to being crossed. The tiniest slight sends him into a dangerous, sometimes fatal, rage. Gabriel may have to retire after this, if he survives. It’s touch and go. Last assignment? Daniel Silva’s fans hope not.

The Defector blends the worst of Russia’s past with the best of her future. Put your hopes on the women. And sidestep the politicians. Loyal citizens, particularly those with extraordinary abilities and tenacity, will get things done. Especially if they’re anything like Gabriel Allon. But beware; this may be his toughest case yet. It certainly is his most thrilling.

[1] Jerry Harkavy Associated Press, “Book Review: Daniel Silva’s ‘Defector’ is well-crafted thriller,” Billings Gazette (Aug 30, 2009), downloaded January 6, 2017

[2] Kate Ayers at Book Reporter, accessed December 3, 2017 at

[3] Silva, Daniel (2008). Moscow Rules. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons


The Quantum Spy

Title:                      The Quantum Spy

Author:                   David Ignatius

Ignatius, David (2018). The Quantum Spy: a thriller. New York: W. W. Norton & Company

LCCN:    2017015373

PS3559.G54 Q36 2018

Date Posted:      December 1, 2017

Reviewed by Marisha Pessl[1]

A similar widespread villainy lies at the heart of David Ignatius’s The Quantum Spy, a somber espionage procedural about the race to build the world’s first quantum computer—a theoretical frontier at the intersection of computer science and quantum physics. Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist who has long covered the C.I.A., and he happily takes us for a jaunt through a world of anonymous hotel rooms and conference tables across Beijing and Vancouver and Dubai, where decisions to take someone off “the shelf” (i.e., bring him or her back into action) are blankly relayed and executed. American start-ups on the brink of game-changing innovation are visited by a C.I.A. officer, a “lean, putty-faced man with a bad haircut” who quietly demands for the United States government to be their only client. Operatives aspire to the “highest art” of their profession: to “appear ordinary.”

Here, the ostensible enemy is a mole inside the C.I.A. known as RUKOU, or the DOORWAY, whom the C.I.A. must ferret out and eliminate, all the while keeping the Chinese away from their technological breakthroughs—a Sisyphean exercise if ever there was one.

The mood is mournful and restrained. The C.I.A.’s vibe feels like a highway motel with thin walls, a smell of chlorine, a vending machine where your Twix gets stuck on the glass. The most delightful aspect of the book is the characterization of the Chinese—their expletive-ridden insults, downbeat perspective (“Bad luck is always hiding inside the doorway, down the next hutong”), and quirks. Chinese agents carry a mijian with them at all times, “a small, leatherbound diary” in which they write things “that were never, ever to be shared.” In one fascinating scene set in Mexico, a Chinese agent with a Spanish accent unnerves the Chinese-American hero, Harris Chang, by unveiling Chang’s own secret political Chinese ancestry to him. It proves to be a surprisingly powerful interrogation technique: “He was uncomfortable. It was as if someone else had taken possession of his life story.”

It comes to light that the mole is motivated by a desire to build “one world”—a single borderless country that brings to mind Facebook’s hope to “bring the world closer together.” But infinitely more devastating than any double agent is the operating hollowness at the heart of the C.I.A. When superiors question Chang’s loyalty, he submits to three polygraphs; however no lie detector can resolve the problem. Neither innocent nor guilty, he is afflicted by a lack of resolve: “He occupied a space where things are ambiguous, where people are simultaneously friend and foe, loyal and disloyal, impossible to define until the moment when events intervene and force each particle, each heart, to one side or the other.” The agent is a spinning electron in the atom, eluding capture by a Heisenberg uncertainty principle. There is the probability of an exact location, which holds true only during the nanosecond of perception. Then he is at large again, careening around a moral fog.

[1] Marisha Pessl, “Our Villains, Ourselves: A Thriller Roundup,” The New York Times Book Review. Marisha Pessl is the author of the novels Night Film and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Her next book, Neverworld Wake, will be published in 2018. A version of this article appears in print on October 29, 2017, on Page BR16 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Thrillers.