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Thrillers are good beach reading because, like the beach, they are supposed to provide a vacation from real life.
Which is why Daniel Silva’s latest blockbuster, The Black Widow, makes for such unsettling summer reading.
Allon is everything a thriller hero should be: taciturn yet passionate, intellectual yet a man of action, and basically invincible. But just days before he is supposed to go to work, a terrorist atrocity takes place, one that hits Allon close to home.
Here The Black Widow begins to converge with reality in ways that threaten the escapist pleasures it is supposed to offer. The intensely present reality of ISIS terrorism means that Silva’s fictional treatment of it has a difficult choice to make. Silva’s master spy Allon is everything a thriller hero should be: taciturn yet passionate, intellectual yet a man of action, and basically invincible. This problem is especially pertinent to a character like Gabriel Allon, who is not just a superspy but an Israeli superspy. This gives Gabriel Allon a fatalistic attitude, which would be totally out of place in an American spy novel—say, one by Tom Clancy.
Another new Israeli is Natalie, a French-Jewish doctor who has recently made aliyah, as part of the growing flight of Jews from France. To say too much about Natalie’s mission would be to spoil The Black Widow, and there’s nothing less interesting than a thriller whose ending you already know.
Adam Kirsch is the director of the MA program in Jewish Studies at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Emblems of the Passing World: Poems after Photographs by August Sander. Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.
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The hero is quicker, smarter, and stronger than any real secret agent; the villain, more ingeniously villainous. This book was my first acquaintance with Silva and with his hero, the master Israeli spy Gabriel Allon, who has starred in more than a dozen novels.
Yet by the time The Black Widow opens, he has reached the stage of his career where he is no longer supposed to go off on adventures in the field.


Hannah Weinberg, one of his former lovers, is a French Jew who runs a small center for the study of anti-Semitism in the Marais, the Jewish district of Paris.
In an author’s note, Silva indicates that he finished The Black Widow after the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher massacres of January 2015. The thriller form strongly pushes for a happy ending: Somehow, we want and expect Gabriel Allon to track down Safia, thwart the next bombing, and put an end to the ISIS threat. When you think about it, the emergence of the Mossad as a legendary, supposedly omnipotent, intelligence agency is one of the oddest twists of Jewish history.
Because the bombing that begins the novel was committed in France, it falls to “Alpha Group,” a top-secret French intelligence team, to track down the perpetrator. Israel may not be much safer—Silva dwells on the frequency of Palestinian terror attacks, and Natalie spends her days at the hospital patching up terrorists and their victims alike. Suffice it to say that the action moves from Paris to Jerusalem to Raqqa to Washington, and that the plot (and the plots) expand and twist in satisfying ways.
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You may have seen plugs for some of its off-kilter and risque foreign crime dramas, including The Out-Laws (Belgium), The Hunter (France) and Locked Up (Spain). It’s a thriller set at a poker game, resulting in a multilayered story combining action round the table and behind the scenes. It’s a twist on the country-house murder mystery with characters locked together in a setting. Why is one of the women playing so recklessly by repeatedly going all-in? Will Vincent retrieve the prize money when he loses it down a ventilator shaft?
She writes the novels based on the Scott & Bailey series, which stars Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones and is soon to return to ITV – with her latest book about the female detectives being Bleed Like Me. He arrived on the crime scene with his acclaimed novel The Business of Dying, a terrific story about a corrupt cop who moonlights as a hitman.
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But most important, the hero is supposed to win: He stops the ticking time bomb, thwarts the terrorist, rescues the girl. But since it is full of call-backs to Allon’s previous adventures, I already feel I know him pretty well.
Instead, he is about to be promoted to head of “the Office,” as Silva calls the Israeli intelligence agency that everyone else calls Mossad. Spurred by the rise in anti-Semitic violence committed by French Muslims, Weinberg plans a conference that will attract leading politicians and experts from around the world.
But the book must have been written before the even deadlier attacks in Paris last November, and in Brussels in March of this year, and the Orlando nightclub shooting this summer. A hundred years ago, Jews were utterly powerless, the prey of pogroms and concentration camps; today, Israelis are renowned as fierce warriors and lethally effective secret agents. But at least Israel allows Jews to fight back against their enemies; and that is just what Natalie is offered the chance to do by Gabriel Allon.
But here again Silva runs up against a reality that is not as satisfyingly patterned as fiction.
The most interesting thing about the book, however, is not its cinematic suspense formulas, but the way it is consistently drawn to moral ambiguity, seemingly despite itself. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). As the drama unfolds, we realise there’s a lot more than half-a-million francs at stake.
The character was turned into a series by STV with first John Hannah and then Ken Stott portraying him.


Cath is also the author of the Sal Kilkenny private eye stories and creator and scriptwriter of Blue Murder, which was on ITV and starred Caroline Quentin. His authentic thrillers are basedon research with members of Special Branch, the Anti-Terrorist Branch and the Organised Crime Agency.
This is a comforting antidote to the way the world works—especially lately—because in reality, the bad guys very often get away with it.
He got his start as a spy and assassin when he was assigned to hunt down the Palestinian terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
This will come as a surprise to the world, and to his many enemies, who have been carefully led to believe that he is dead. In the first pages of the book, this conference is hit with a massive bomb, killing Hannah and everyone else. In other words, Silva’s fictional ISIS bombing was preceded and followed by a string of real-life ISIS atrocities, some directed against Jews, others against gays, still others against random Europeans and Americans. Yet this reputation for prowess doesn’t alter the basic geopolitical facts of Israel’s destiny, which are highly adverse: surrounded by enemies, occupying a restive population in the West Bank, with ISIS and Iran just over the horizon. But not while Gabriel was alive, and certainly not while he was chief of the Office.” This way of thinking makes Gabriel Allon almost an existentialist spy.
Silva (who lives in Florida) relishes the idea of Israel as the champion of Jews worldwide—the tough Zionist Jews who come to the rescue of soft Diaspora Jews.
She comes home from work one day to find a representative of the Office waiting in her apartment, and the next thing she knows, she has been recruited for an incredibly dangerous mission.
As we have seen time and again, the violence done in ISIS’s name is not necessarily the carefully planned exploit of a Saladin. There is no doubt that in this series we are meant to be on Israel’s side; yet in the course of her training as “Leila,” Natalie is taught the Palestinian narrative so convincingly that Silva ends up giving the reader considerable empathy with it.
The terrorist, it emerges, is a beautiful (of course) woman named Safia Bourihane, a French-Algerian Muslim whose boyfriend was killed in Syria, where he had gone to join ISIS. In other words, Israel’s tactical genius is needed to counterbalance its strategic hopelessness. Like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up a hill, he must give his all for a cause he believes is ultimately hopeless. Describing a Russian-born Israeli spy named Mikhail, Silva writes: “He was like the millions who had come before him, the early Zionist pioneers. She is to go undercover as a Palestinian named Leila, offer herself up as an ISIS recruit, travel to Syria, and meet with Saladin—the code name of the ISIS mastermind who is responsible for Hannah Weinberg’s death and many others. More often, it is the spontaneous outbreak of an isolated individual—some loser armed with a rifle or a truck who is happy to credit ISIS for his actions. Again, Gabriel, and the author, are contemptuous of President Obama’s cautious response to ISIS, especially his underestimation of its power, as when he referred to it as “the JV team” of terror. As if his prowess with a gun wasn’t enough, he is equally adept with a paint brush: Allon is a brilliant restorer of artworks, and in The Black Widow we first see him working at the Israel Museum, touching up a Caravaggio. Safia, then, is the “black widow” of the title—a deadly woman who kills for revenge, and for the Islamic State.
This kind of terrorist story is highly unsusceptible to being turned into a thriller, partly because it is actually more frightening than the Saladin model of top-down terror.
But Silva also recognizes that ISIS’s greatest wish is to embroil the United States in an apocalyptic war in the Middle East, which it believes will literally bring about Armageddon. You can take out a Saladin, but no one seems to be able to predict who will be the next ISIS martyr.
The Black Widow leaves you asking questions that are hardly suitable for a day at the beach.




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