A Russian defector, a constant critic of the regime in Moscow, suddenly disappears from a London street. The verdict of MI5 and MI6, the British domestic and foreign intelligence services, is that the defector, Grigori Bulganov, a former intelligence operative, was a double agent. Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad, comes up with a different conclusion. Bulganov’s disappearance is part of a larger scheme, devised by Ivan Kharkov, a former KGB assassin turned billionaire oligarch and international arms dealer. Mossad leadership believes Bulganov is collateral damage. Kharkov’s real target is Gabriel Allon, the Mossad operative who foiled a Kharkov operation and exfiltrated Kharkov’s wife and children from Russia. Kharkov’s objective is to bring Vishaya mera — the highest level of punishment — on Allon and Allon’s new wife, Chiara.
These are the bare bones of Daniel Silva’s latest thriller, “The Defector.” Mr. Silva has a good eye for detail. Thus, when Mr. Allon visits the house where Grigori Bulganov lived, and opens the refrigerator, he notes that “the owner was a man of middle age who did not entertain often, especially not women.”
Why? “On one shelf was a tin of salted herring and an open jar of tomato sauce; on another a lump of pate and a wedge of very ripe Camembert cheese. The freezer contained only vodka.” It’s a lovely word-sketch that tells you a lot about Grigori Bulganov — and also about Gabriel Allon.
Indeed, Mr. Silva is good about doling out information. “The Defector” is the latest in a long line of thrillers starring Mr. Allon. And the temptation would be to give new readers the back story in big chunks. Mr. Silva does not succumb to this tactic. Nor does he do it for his villain. Ivan Kharkov’s bona fides are parsed out over more than 300 pages. Early on, we learn that Mr. Kharkov is an oligarch and arms dealer who operates with the tacit support of the Russian government. A hundred-plus pages later, we discover that he owns a Knightsbridge mansion in West London, and that he holidays in Courchevel in the winters and St. Tropez in the summers. And shortly after that, Mr. Silva fills us in on the details of Ivan Kharkov’s CV: how he created one of Russia’s first privately owned banks; how he snatched up a fleet of transport ships and aircraft and turned those assets into a shipping network for weapons.
Mr. Kharkov sold weapons — as did the real life merchant of death Viktor Bout, no doubt one of Mr. Silva’s real-life templates for the character — “to anyone, so long as they could pay. … He sold his weapons to dictators and he sold them to rebels. He sold to freedom fighters with legitimate grievances and to genocidal maniacs who slaughtered women and children. … He perfected the practice of selling weapons to both sides of a conflict, judiciously moderating the flow of arms in order to prolong killing and maximize his profits.”
Only 50 or so pages later do we learn that Mr. Kharkov has “silver hair” and a “head like a tank turret,” and that “His powerful aftershave hung like an invisible fog on the brittle air. Sandalwood and smoke. The smell of power. The smell of the devil.” Nicely done, Mr. Silva.
Mr. Silva also is not shy about painting his characters in broad-brush strokes, making them stereotypical as opposed to nuanced. This is a positive, not negative trait in these sorts of books. After all, Mr. Silva is not a pointillist writer in the tradition of John le Carre, but follows more in the populist footsteps of Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean and Robert Ludlum. Thus, Mr. Silva’s CIA top dog, Adrian Carter, has “left his fingerprints on every American covert operation of the last two generations.” Mr. Carter’s “tousled thinning hair and a prominent mustache that had gone out of fashion with disco music, Crock-Pots, and the nuclear freeze” gave him “the air of a professor from a minor university, the sort who championed noble causes and was a constant thorn in the side of his dean.”
Graham Seymour, MI5’s deputy director “wore a perfectly fitted suit of charcoal gray and a burgundy necktie. His face was fine boned and even featured, and his hair had a rich silvery cast to it that made him look like a male model one sees in ads for costly but needless trinkets — the sort who wears expensive watches and writes with expensive fountain pens. … Everything about Seymour spoke of confidence and composure. Even his handshake was a weapon designed to demonstrate to the recipient that he had met his match.”
The beautiful Olga Sukhova “had been a practitioner of one of the world’s most dangerous trades: Russian journalism. We meet Ms. Sukhova in Oxford, “clutching a Siamese cat with luminous blue eyes that matched hers to perfection. She wore a tight fitting black sweater, charcoal gray trousers, and smart black boots. Her hair, once long and flaxen, was now short and dark. Her face … was one of the most beautiful Gabriel had ever seen: heroic, vulnerable, virtuous. The face of a Russian icon come to life. The face of Russia itself.”
The multilayered plot of Mr. Silva’s book takes us on an odyssey that includes locations in Italy, Britain, the United States, Russia and Israel. There are twists and turns enough to satisfy the most jaded thriller devotee, as well as enough of the Murphy factor (what can go wrong will go wrong) to keep readers turning those pages. It is refreshing to see that even after more than half a dozen Gabriel Allon novels, Mr. Silva still manages to keep his characters fresh and his stories entertaining.
• John Weisman’s latest novels, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action,” are available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at email@example.com.