Writing About Writing: Current Events … In Fiction

by Michael S. Katz

I’ve never been much of a fan of espionage fiction. Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler … I’ve always thought the plots were just too convoluted for my more simple tastes, I suppose. So when I started reading my first Daniel Silva novel, I didn’t expect to complete it.

Surprise. A year later and I’ve finished the eleventh Gabriel Allon novel. Maybe some of the entertainment value—for me—is that these read like spycraft procedurals, rather than infinitely looping mysteries. I love to learn about the inner workings of the Mossad, the CIA, and MI5 (among other agencies). According to Silva, much of his writing is based on true facts. I recently read Mossad: The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service by Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal, and can see how much of the background material about the Mossad finds its way into these novels (although modified by Silva for his purposes).

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I like historical fiction because I like to learn at the same time I am being entertained. One can never have too much knowledge. Silva sets his stories in the present, but often provides a great deal of history by way of background, and also discusses current events (at least at the time each book is written). I have learned a great deal from reading Silva’s work.

For example, in Portrait of a Spy, not only are connections between Saudi Arabia and terrorist networks delved into, but Silva also describes how oppressive life is for women in Arab countries, inhumane living conditions among the working classes, political snafus caused by the American government’s dependence on Saudi oil, and the growth of jihadist elements in European countries. All this is icing on the cake—the cake being an entertaining story focusing on an interesting character with real human emotions, one who has grown along with the series.

It also interests me to no end that this character—Gabriel Allon, a spy for a fictional version of the Mossad—has been able to anchor a bestselling series in a world where anti-Semitism is still way too prevalent. I don’t want to go off on a tangent here; many of my thoughts on being Jewish are contained within my novel, Shalom on the Range, although I did my best to hide them deep down within the humor and action elements. I may even finish the sequel one of these days. But Daniel Silva’s writing similarly contains action and suspense, but also manages to find time to subtextualize what it is like to be Jewish, or what it is like to be Israeli. Amazingly, Daniel Silva was not born Jewish, he was raised Catholic, but he converted to Judaism after he had started the Gabriel Allon series because he fell in love with a Jewish woman and wanted their children to be brought up Jewish.

Each book in the series is full of fascinating material, on many different levels. Even in a fictional universe, there is room for the reader to learn about the real world around them.