A James Bond for the post-9/11 world

 , National Post · Dec. 14, 2011 | Last Updated: Dec. 14, 2011 3:10 AM ET

I love journalism. But keeping up with the news leaves little time for recreational reading. In my precolumnizing days, I'd read a novel or two a week. But fiction, especially the detective and spy genres I adore, has become a guilty pleasure.

Last weekend, curious to see why the Gabriel Allon espionage series is so popular, I defied my superego and plunged into Daniel Silva's latest book, Portrait of a Spy. The pleasure was worth the guilt. I'm officially smitten by the book's protagonist, Gabriel Allon.

This middle-aged Israeli secret agent is a cosmopolitan polyglot haunted by Holocaust ghosts, with a brilliant record of eliminating latter-day Islamist Hitler wannabes.

Allon isn't just a secret agent, though. He's a gifted artist with a specialty in the restoration of old masters. He is psychologically torn (de rigeur in this heroic breed) between duty and, as the novel opens, earned respite from it - a quiet, art-centred life in remote Cornwall, with breaks for soulful cliff walks and gourmet meals prepared by his beautiful young Italian wife (also a spy).

His idyll is interrupted. After visiting an art dealer in London, he anticipates, but fails to stop, a suicide bomber from blowing up a group of innocents. So duty prevails when Allon is called on by Shamron, his old, but still leonine Mossad mentor, to collaborate with the CIA in an operation to eliminate the terror network behind the London bombing Allon witnessed, and similar ones in other European cities.

Gathering his formidable team of seasoned Mossad operatives, all brilliant, singleminded, tech-savvy - and did I mention fluent in Arabic? - Allon launches a daring peripatetic scheme, financially and logistically mounted through American largesse, but executed by Israelis working their so-cool spyware.

At the plan's centre is Nadia al-Bakari, the reclusive billionaire heiress of a Saudi terror funder. Nadia's tragic coming of moral age when her father, felled by an assassin's bullet, dies in her arms, opens the door to a strange, but persuasive intimacy with Allon. Pledged to roll back her father's bloody legacy, Nadia is the only one with the resources and credibility to lead Allon to his elusive targets. Can he trust her? He must gamble that he can.

The racy plot unfolds in Washington and, with tension-packed stops along the way in Paris and Dubai, climaxes, in the desolate Saudi Arabian desert, with a riveting showdown between Allon and terror honcho Rashid al-Husseinu, (modelled on the recently assassinated, American-born jihadist, Anwar al-Awlaki).

Terse, entertaining dialogues between Israeli and American agents reveal their mutually dependent, but mutually wary coalition. The White House won't authorize American covert action in the "quasi-friendly" Saudi Arabia because "it could embarrass the regime," but, as Shamron wryly notes, "Israelis running amok in Dubai is another matter."

Israeli and American strengths and weaknesses complement each other. The CIA director says to Allon: "Our ability to collect information is unrivalled, but we're too big and far too redundant to be effective.- Sometimes, it's better to be small and ruthless. Like you."

Foreign-policy hawks will admire the author's firm grasp of geopolitical realities. A former postgraduate student of international relations, Silva has worked on UPI's foreign desk in Washington and served as their Middle East correspondent in Cairo and the Persian Gulf. He is an American who knows the Middle East well.

Like the hawks, Silva takes a hardheaded view of a patient, triumphalist Islamism that neither sleeps nor wavers in its obsessive jihad against Israel and the West. He seems to think Europe "might be dying," and definitely thinks America and Israel are in the fight of their lives for the foreseeable future.

Even when his own hero expresses hope for peace in our time, the author demurs. In their desert confrontation, Gabriel says to Rashid, "The Arab world is changing. Your time has passed." Rashid retorts, "Surely, Allon, a man such as yourself is not so naive as to think this great Arab Awakening is going to produce Western-style democracy in the Middle East. The revolt might have started with the students and the secularists, but the [Muslim] brothers will have the last word."

Silva has been enormously popular since he began publishing in 1997. In my previous life, I would have twigged to him immediately. My late discovery doesn't displease me, though: It means I still have nine more Allon adventures awaiting me.