Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Daniel Silva writes an art historical thriller

I have not read Daniel Silva before, but a mention of this novel intrigued me. Now that I have read it, I feel that I should go back and read some of his earlier novels.

The Rembrandt Affair

What starts as a seemingly simple, if grizzly, story of art theft, The Rembrandt Affair (496 pages, Putnam Adult, $26.95), Daniel Silva’s latest novel in his Gabriel Allon series, quickly becomes enmeshed in a high-stakes Israeli-Iranian showdown, concerning arms sales and nuclear proliferation.

After an eerily suggestive opening, we are introduced to Julian Livingston, a London art dealer, who is distraught at the loss of the Rembrandt “Portrait of a Young Girl,” which he had put in the hands of a talented art restorer in order to complete a multi-million dollar sale. The painting has been stolen, it seems, and the restorer himself brutally murdered.

Livingston turns to his old friend Gabriel Allon, an art restorer who is also a retired member of the Israeli Secret Service. Allon is trying to put his life and that of his Italian wife Chiara back together after the death of their son. Gabriel and Chiara are living in an isolated town in Cornwall (England). At first, when Livingston approaches Gabriel, the old Secret Service agent hero resists; but because of his background in art and because he owes Livingston a favor, Gabriel takes on the task of finding the lost picture.

Of course the first thing Gabriel decides to do is to discover the provenance of the painting. After what seems like a very short time, it becomes clear that the painting disappeared during the second world war, in Amsterdam, and only reappeared several years after the war.

Discovering what happened in those dark years takes Gabriel right into the world of Holocaust survivors. It turns out that the painting was stolen from an upper-class Jewish merchant in Holland. In a devastating scene, we witness a villainous Gestapo officer using the painting to taunt its owner as he is being sent off to the death camps. The officer offers the man the life of his daughter in exchange for the painting. It is a brutal offer, but the man accepts the terms and takes a receipt for the exchange.

This receipt, when it turns up in the hands of the daughter who was saved, offers the chance to finally attach something specific to the name of Kurt Voss, the Gestapo officer involved. But not only that, history also proves that Voss hid an account of the personal savings he stole and where he placed that money in Switzerland. This list he tucked into the back of the Rembrandt painting.
In the present day, the painting is being sought for the very reason of what it hides. Not only is Kurt Voss’s name besmirched with this concrete information, but also the world of Swiss banking is threatened in so much as the full extent of its cooperation with Nazi thieves has never fully been known.

The one financier who seems most threatened by these disclosures is Martin Landesmann, the son of a crooked Swiss banker, who has tried to attach his own name to public causes and improvements in the third world. But it turns out that he has kept up his father’s nefarious dealings; and as a result, he seeks the Rembrandt painting as a way of protecting his own name.

When the conflict reaches its climax, the Israeli has recruited a charming British muckraker—something of a femme fatale—to help him infiltrate Landesmann’s world. When this almost blows up in his face, after a spine-tingling series of close calls and near misses, Gabriel finds himself in a position to call all the shots once again. As soon as he does, the results are reasonably satisfying to himself and his allies.

Silva has written a well-paced and gripping thriller, and he teaches something about art restoration as well as reminding us about some of the most recent threats to international stability. I will certainly look up some of his earlier novels, and I will be pleased to review them here.

Daniel Silva

Pick up a copy of The Rembrandt Affair at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.


  1. At the end of each of his works, Mr. Silva adds a few pages of "Author's notes", which do a good job of separating fact from the fiction he writes so well. It does not destroy the story to read these notes beforehand, and adds credibility to his research. His "acknowledgements" are also worthwhile reading.

  2. The Julian Livingston that you refer to is actually named Julian Isherwood and appears in several of Silva's Allon series novels. I recommend reading them all, in chronological order for maximum satisfaction.