I have just finished reading the second book in the Gabriel Allon series, The English Assassin by Daniel Silva. One of the things that separates the Gabriel Allon series from other spy thrillers is that Gabriel works for Israeli intelligence. He is often considered such a good spy because he can kill without getting too emotional about it. In fact, critics say he may not have blood in his veins, which, I guess, is a way to say he is too robotic, or workmanlike. In the spy thrillers I have read, the best agents are not necessarily warm, cuddly individuals. Gabriel actually seems, to me, a bit more human than some agents who use a more military model. But he is a loner, and does not ever put together a permanent team. He actually has an adversarial relationship with many of the other members of the Office. Gabriel doesn’t create an ersatz family, unless a bunch of old curmudgeons qualify.
Another thing that separates the Allon series from other thrillers is Allon’s talent as an art restorer. Gabriel always says that he would like to restore art and not be a killer of bad guys. He blames the man who turned him into his protégé in the spy trade – Ari Shamron who runs the Office on King Saul Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Gabriel has some affection and plenty of hostility for Shamron. Shamron changed the path of Gabriel’s life, made him a spy instead of a painter. Gabriel always fools himself into believing that each case is his last. However, his conscience convinces him to take on project after project. But even more often Shamron convinces (bribes) him to take a case. In the case of Augustus Rolfe, Anna Rolfe, and the missing Impressionist paintings, Shamron gets Gabriel to investigate the matter using false pretenses.
We are made aware of the role bankers in Switzerland played in a war where they allegedly remained neutral. Because they were the world’s bankers, with accounts guaranteed as secret, they accepted money, art, jewels, gold, and anything valuable from German leaders who were members of the Nazi government – Jewish valuables stolen from citizens they knew they intended to gas. When the Nazi’s lost the war, the Swiss did not give the valuables back because the transactions were still supposedly protected by privacy laws. But the banks, Silva contends, often came to believe that these spoils of genocide and war were theirs. When one such Swiss banker, Augustus Rolfe, the very one Shamron sent Gabriel to meet, is found dead, Gabriel is arrested and thrown into a cell in Zurich even though logistically he could not be the murderer. Shamron hears of this and gets him out. He sends Gabriel off to meet Anna Rolfe, a famous violinist, whose father is the dead banker. Through Anna, Allon finds out about the large and illegal collection of Impressionist paintings owned by her father. Anna needs to be protected. After all, her father was murdered in his own salon. The paintings must be found. A secret group in Switzerland (the Council of Rütli) exists solely to make sure these paintings are not found.
A second assassin, one who trained under Gabriel for a while, is killing anyone connected with this painting chase. Christopher Keller, who most people think died in the SAS, is very much alive, living on Corsica and killing whoever the Orsati family wants him too. (The Orsatis do believe in justice but this time they are on the wrong side. Keller switches side, and stops killing the good guys.) He decides he wants to kill the same awful men that Gabriel kills. This may explain how Gabriel gets out of the clutches of Otto Gessler alive so he can retire to Cornwall to recover from his injuries and restore works of art until Shamron intervenes once again.
The English Assassin has a fairly convoluted plot with lots of traveling involved. But there is satisfaction in the possibility that the recovered works of art will be returned to the original owners or their offspring, if anyone in the owner’s family is still alive. While this thriller is fictional, art stolen by Germans in WWII really has been found and returned when possible. This amazing story has been told again and again since some of the caches of paintings have been found, and it always feels like justice.
Whether there is really a shadowy group of Swiss bankers whose key goal is to keep the cruelly appropriated wealth stored in the vaults and cellars in their banks, or even in their houses, I do not know. It certainly fits with what we know of human greed.
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