How does a character who relocates wild critters who have wandered too close to a human turn out to be a person of rare and admirable character? That describes Angie Anderson, the main character in Carl Hiaasen’s new book, Squeeze Me. Perhaps Angie stands out because most of the characters in Hiaasen’s book are caricatures. Hiaasen, a Florida author, is famous for creating both mayhem and humor that is recognizably Floridian. He loves Florida but he also sees that it is a wacky place and he mines it for his satirical prose. He knows how to tell good stories.
This time we find ourselves at Casa Bellicosa, a thin disguise for the winter White House. You can probably guess who has the code name Mastodon, and by association, who has the code name Mockingbird. There are secret service men and women all over the place. Mastodon and Mockingbird are getting it on, but not with each other. We also have the Potussies (POTUS + Pussies) a gaggle of old socialite club members who idolize Mastodon.
When one the Potussies disappears the wealthy ladies are sad to lose one of their own but they are also worried that there will be a scandal for their beloved POTUS. Assumptions are made which lead to the arrest of Diego, an illegal immigrant and college graduate who just found his way back to the US where he went to college. He’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mastodon is only too happy to whip up his cult to harass the young man in his cell in the local jail, and to even get cult members arrested so they can try to kill Diego. Sentiments are running high and Diego is in despair.
Angie Anderson has a good idea of what happened to Kiki Fitzsimmons, but the proof keeps escaping from her clutches even though the proof is dead. It’s a romp that feeds into a certain political viewpoint which may or may not be yours. If it is you will surely enjoy Hiaasen’s book, Squeeze Me. I don’t want to give away the yucky parts so this is all I can tell you. If you subscribe to the opposite political viewpoint buy the book anyway. You can always burn it on behalf of the president you love. Support writers.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is right up my alley, in my wheelhouse, or any other cliché that means Mr. Harari and I like to think about the same things. We like to think about earth and mankind’s place on earth. We like to think about human societies or cultures if you prefer, how they developed, how we got to this particular overcrowded, possibly existential state we currently find ourselves in, and if and how we can find our way back from the precipice. He begins at the beginning when there are two species of humanoids on the planet at the same time, Neanderthals and homo sapiens.
Humans began as just another species of animals. They had the same needs for food and shelter, communal cooperation and reproduction. There are no other animal species that we know of that left drawings on caves though, and that may be the key difference that started the entire chain of human history. In our early days we did nothing that disturbed the natural balance of the planet. We hunted and gathered but animals and plants were plentiful and all living things flourished or experienced hardships together. If life became difficult in one location people simply moved to a new location. Life was ‘a moveable feast’.
Harari explains that people usually think that it was agriculture that changed the human equation. Of course it did. But, he reasons, what really separated people from other animals was the human facility with storytelling. Animals didn’t name constellations or make up families of capricious gods. But once humans did create these ‘stories’ which Harari calls ‘myths’ humans who shared the same myths began to join together in communities. They could not have done this without learning how to plant seeds and keep a stable food supply nearby. At first these myths might be small and local and they varied from place to place. People fought wars over them. One myth got absorbed into another.
The point at which readers may have difficulty accepting Harari’s ‘myth’ thesis is when we get to modern religions: Christianity, Judaism, Muslims, Buddhism, Hinduism. Whether monotheistic or polytheistic, all of these religions, to Harari, are myths. They are myths that separate us and keep us apart, set back a global future we can hardly avoid unless some disaster drastically lowers the human population or some other life-changing event occurs. Will we ever give up our myths or adopt one worldwide myth?
Yuval shows how far we have gotten from the balance of nature into which mankind was born. So many animals are extinct. Men and women no longer collect in caves and live off the land without radically changing the planet. He discusses the role of imperialism and capitalism, the economic idea of perpetual growth which occupies the thinking of so many of us. Can the exponential growth of the Industrial Revolution continue? Can Capitalism get reined in enough to restore some of the natural balance we need. This is not a book about climate change. This is a book that suggests that we “left the garden” when we built towns and cities and empires and our moves have thrown the planet out of balance. Harari explores economics and even the way we treat cattle and chickens. (We really do need to find a new way to treat our food. We know that this is inhumane because it makes no nod to the equal circumstances in which we all began and it weighs on our spirits.) He discusses globalization and the future of mankind but tells us he will offer more in a second book.
In all, it is a sprawling book and it inspires thoughts while immersed in the author’s ideas and long after. It’s a book I will remember, and I go to sleep some nights going over what Harari had to say, some of which is hard to take, but for the most part is not anything we haven’t heard in the corners of our culture where such things are contemplated. Exercise that brain with thoughtful books and perhaps you will solve the riddle of civilization at the same time. Or we will go to space, take our myths with us and do the whole thing all over again because it’s a pattern we like, or we can’t change, or our myths are now too imbedded and we are too committed.
Michael Hughes sent me a note asking me to read his novel Inland Intrigue so I did. I had never heard of the Inland Empire, a rather ostentatious name given to a not so ostentatious section of southern California, apparently to help market the area. The story takes place in the Inland Empire town of Riverside and all around the Inland Empire in 2006 and 2012. Tyler and his dad are on the way to the funeral of Bill Higgins, a man who was a friend of his father, a lawyer who worked for a bank called CalCoast that was into subprime housing loans. He died in a car accident. On the way David suggests that Tyler get involved with the Republican Party someday. Six years later Tyler Conway is home from college and staying with mom Linda and dad David at the upscale family home with pool and hot tub. Tyler is at loose ends about what to do with his summer so he decides to do as his Dad suggested. He gets involved in the local Republican election campaign.
Political campaigns are not exactly hotbeds of activity during the summer months but Tyler’s dad puts him in touch with the Vice Chair of Riverside County Republican Party, Seamus O’Malley. Madison, Tyler’s sister is the only Democrat in the family and she gets some heat as she comes back from Boston to work in a program called Housing Helpers which is supposed to assist those who were hurt when the housing bubble burst. Tyler figures the program is a scam. He is also not sure that his dad’s friend Bill died from natural causes. If he is doing detective work it is the lowest key detective work I have ever experienced, but he does get some answers.
Hughes spends a lot of time describing Tyler’s days which are almost as boring serving the party as they would be if he just stayed home all summer. Is the Groundhog Day pace of the book purposeful, as it really does describe political campaigning several months out from an election, or is it a flaw in plotting? Do we really want to pull into the driveway in Riverside day after day in either the Mercedes Benz E320 or the Land Cruiser and jump in the pool and then the hot tub, or take a nap and heat up a pot pie. I kept reading. I didn’t quit. Perhaps because, often enough, a day would bring one new piece of the puzzle, or one new character to catch my interest. Weekends we often went to dinner with Linda and David and Tyler where conversation seemed scarce. I also had problems with the unusual uses of the word “but” in Tyler’s thoughts and conversations. Is this a regionalism? Is it just bad grammar? Just when it started to bother me the odd usage stopped.
Highways are complex in California and knowing which ones you will take and where your exits are is very important. Is it important to include every detail of each time the ‘Benz’ or the ‘Cruiser’ hit the road? You will have to judge for yourself. However, if you need to know how to get anywhere in the Inland Empire or the route to Tyler’s sister’s place, or to a weekend convention or a photo shoot, Tyler is as good as a GPS. He tells you every highway to take, every exit and even surface street directions if necessary, and he describes the neighborhoods he is passing by. I would consider these kinds of details superfluous as they were not part of the plot, but another reader might appreciate knowing exactly where they were at all times, and it might be a California thing.
It is not easy to write books, even fiction books, so I give Hughes credit for a book that hangs together and has all the necessary elements of a story. Is it an exciting story? Is it great storytelling? I will leave that to other readers to decide. But there was intrigue of a sort and it was uncovered. I had some trouble with Tyler’s reactions to what he discovered. You will have to judge for yourself. Keep writing Michael Hughes. You’re off to a good start. And that’s how writers get better.
Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore, set in the Permian Basin town of Odessa and the oil fields that spring from it and surround it is a modern story whose themes are those recurring modern themes: male dominance and white supremacy. But this story is told by women; women who deal with a hardscrabble existence and men who are, for the most part absent. The men have not deserted them, they are working on the oil rigs and the horizontal drill sites because these jobs pay well and give hope, mostly unfounded, that the family will stockpile enough money to buy their way to a better life. It may work out for some people but tragedy stalks oil work and the climate is killer, made worse by blowing dust and methane flares. The billions of stars visible in the night skies, away from the flares, may be the only compensation Wetmore’s. characters tell us.
“We lose the men when they try to beat the trains and their pickup trucks stall on the tracks, or they get drunk and accidentally shoot themselves, or they get drunk and climb the water tower and fall ten stories to their deaths. During cutting season, when they stumble in the chute and a bull calf roars and kicks them in the heart. On fishing trips when they drown in the lake or fall asleep at the wheel on the drive home. Pile-up on the interstate, shooting at the Dixie Motel, hydrogen sulfide leak outside Gardendale.”
Gloria is 14. She is looking for excitement so she does something that she knows her mother (who she loves) will disapprove of. She allows herself to be enticed into the passenger seat of a pickup truck by an older, but handsome-in-a-beat-up-sort-of-way, man. She wakes up on the ground next to the truck somewhere out in the oil fields, raped and beaten, and lucky to be alive. That man, Dale Strickland is still asleep in the truck as she carefully sets out to find someone who can help her. It is clear that this man could kill her if he awakens and finds her. She has no shoes, we’re not even sure if she is wearing clothing. She cuts her feet on the hard caliche rock and she stops herself from falling and staying there to die by holding on to barbed wire.
When she appears on Mary Rose’s front porch, the only home in this barren land, Mary Rose is at first reluctant to answer the door. She has a young daughter and she is seven months pregnant. Of course even when she does open the door she almost wishes she didn’t. Close behind Gloria who is wounded and traumatized, the pickup truck carrying Dale Strickland turns onto her property. Mary Rose has a gun but is not sure if it is loaded. Dale Strickland knows he is in trouble and he knows how to intimidate. Robert, Mary Rose’s husband is out with his cattle, nowhere nearby. If the ambulance and the police had not arrived (called by the daughter) who can tell what horrors might have happened at that isolated house full of females.
Mary Rose’s husband always wanted her to move in to town to wait for the birth of the baby. She did not want to give up their ranch. Now it is Mary Rose who insists on a place in town and Robert who doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand that she is having nightmares, that she is afraid that Strickland will come back to hurt or kill her daughter and her. She is planning to testify, to stand up for Gloria in court. There is pushback. Gloria’s last name is Ramirez. Dale Strickland grew up in small town America. He is white, a high school football player. His community writes lots of letters on his behalf and offers character references which show that they are out of touch with this incarnation of Dale Strickland, a mean meth head. Who is likely to win in court?
Mary Rose waits for her court appearance in town, on Larkspur Lane, where she eventually meets her neighbors. These women are such well-drawn characters that we feel like we live with them on Larkspur Lane – Suzanne Ledbetter, Corrine Shepard, and Debra Ann, the young girl that Ginny left behind when she lit out for places unknown. It is a world of casseroles and cigarettes, drinks and target practice, women who can’t decide if it is worthwhile to go on or just give up. Debra Ann is an abandoned child and also possibly headed for trouble.
Gloria changes her name to Glory because she can no longer stand the sound of Gloria. She slowly recovers but she has to do this without her mother, Alma, who is taken away by immigration. Her Uncle Victor takes her to a motel where they can disappear. A kind woman Glory meets in the pool at the motel finally gives her the empathy she requires. Mary Rose is getting threatening phone calls day and night to try to scare her into reconsidering her decision to testify. Elizabeth Wetmore evokes the despair of life in the Permian Basin in western Texas, she creates these women who struggle to live in what basically seems like hell on earth. There are glimmers of hope. I guess you can tell that I really loved this book. She calls this book Valentine.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins drops us in the middle of the issues of white supremacy and male dominance. It’s the beginning of the 19 th century but slavery still exists in America and, as in this case, on the sugar cane plantations in Jamaica. The owner of the plantation that is the focus of Collin’s story. John Langton, is from London, a transplant, a scientist, a gentleman farmer (who knows little about farming). We meet Frances as a child being trained as a house-slave. There are plenty of secrets on this plantation – probably on any plantation that keeps people in slavery. Slavery is a nasty business and it taints those who practice it.
John Langton marries Bella who did not get what she bargained for. Not all gentlemen from rich families are wealthy. It depends on their order of birth. To wreak vengeance on Langton, Bella does something forbidden. She teaches Frannie to read. Phibbah, an older house-slave, warns Frances that white women married to gentlemen tend to be very bored and that she should steer clear of any personal relationship with them. But for Frannie learning to read and getting spoiled is just too enticing and she is too young to understand how Miss-Bella is using Frannie to get her husband’s attention, or to punish him.
Bella’s husband is a sort of scientist making the most common mistake that is made by scientists. He has his theory already formulated and now is just trying to bend the evidence to back it up. It is his contention that black minds are inferior to white minds unless there has been “racial mixing.” We’re talking about the 1800’s here, but there are still people in the 21st century who make this argument. John Langton takes vengeance on his wife by using Frances (who can read and write very well) to help him with his scientific work. His lab is in the coach house on the property. He measures and compares the capacity of skulls, and then explores other even less savory arenas. Secrets, secrets, secrets. His book is called Crania.
When the coach house burns down, John Langton’s debts are called in and he loses the plantation. The only thing he still owns is Frannie who he takes to London with him and offers her as a paid servant in the house of a rival scientist, George Benham. George Benham is not against slavery (although it is illegal in England). His theses is that owners should treat their human property better. In the house of George Benham Frances meets the bored wife of Benham, Meg. But this time Frannie is a grown woman. Oh, if only she had listened to Phibbah. The book explores both the dangers faced by women in a male dominated, wealth (or class) dominated society, and the complexities of slavery for house-slaves who we normally think of as escaping the worst of slavery. Frannie may be a kind of “my fair lady” character but there is little fairness in her life’s trajectory, which for the most part she has very little control over. I haven’t given away any secrets. This is not perfect writing, but pretty close.
So many people mentioned that they were reading Dirt by Bill Buford that I succumbed to peer pressure and downloaded the book. I’m not really a foodie, except for an unhealthy addiction to sweets, which I am trying to break. But I am a Francophile of sorts because some of my ancestors were French, so I enjoyed Buford’s adventures in Lyon. Mr. Buford is not a chef, he’s a writer, most recently for The New Yorker, but he had done some stints in Italian kitchens and he met Michel Richard, a French chef in Washington, DC.
Although he and his wife Jessica had newborn twin boys, he commuted on weekdays to Washington DC from New York City and was only available to help out with those twins on weekends. If I were Jessica, I think I might have shown him a few creative uses for pots and pans, or, even better, rolling pins, but Jessica is not faint-of-heart. She handles challenges with grace, occasionally requires better spousal behavior and shares her husband’s sense of adventure.
The two had hoped to move to Paris but ended up in Lyon because Chef Richard had connections there. With twins, now toddlers (moving to Lyon is complicated) the family decamped to Lyon. Bill worked for a while with the boulanger (bread maker) downstairs from their apartment who made bread for restaurants and people all over Lyon. Buford wondered why Bob’s bread was so much better than most bread. His search led him into the Dombes, marshes in the foothills of the French Alps and it led to the essential role “dirt” plays in the quality of food.
Buford did not pick up languages easily but fortunately Jessica did. The boys were in preschool in Lyon and also picked up French quite naturally. Bill took some time. He attended an Institute of French Cooking and did some “stages” at restaurants in Lyon. He did pick up in-depth knowledge of Lyonnaise cooking.
Bill kept wanting to find a connection between Italian cooking and Lyonnaise cooking with Italian cooking at the roots of the French cooking and he did form some interesting theories through his researches. He must have been a very charming guy because he got away with this in the chauvinistic city of Lyon. But he also learned not to speak of these theories to anyone in Lyon.
It turns out that much of the cooking in Lyon came from a few famous “meres” (mothers) whose food was so legendary that it formed the basis of a “mere” restaurant. Some “meres” left handwritten cookbooks for their offspring. Often these “mere” kitchens are now just about the exclusive domain of men.
Dirt by Bill Buford is about food and also about the historical roots of food, and about making friends in a place where newcomers are regarded with suspicion and are snubbed. Informative and enjoyable; sometimes giving in to peer pressure is a good thing. I enjoyed the book every much.
Something freaky happened while I was reading Delia Owen’s book Where the Crawdads Sing. I experienced a small invasion of fireflies in my house. When I turned off my lights at night the flashing lights began, like little twinkle lights, except with a bug attached. Now Kya, the “Marsh Girl” in Owen’s book may have found comfort in a few little fireflies, she may have looked them up in her books and learned all about them, but I didn’t like the idea that they might cozy up to me while I slept so I kept catching them in plastic containers and taking them out to the porch and setting them free. What I learned about fireflies in this novel made them far less romantic, but Kya would excuse them because that is just nature. It’s about survival and reproduction of the species.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a book that requires you to suspend your disbelief, but it is also a book of beautiful images and natural lessons. Kya is born into a family with parents and children, although some of the children are quite a bit older than she is. Her father drinks and yells and slaps and punches, anyone who gets near him but especially his wife. Kya is only six when her mother leaves her, when she walks off in her alligator high heels, carrying a small suitcase, tossing a white scarf over her shoulder. Kya looks every day for years for her mother to return. Her closest sibling, brother Jodie, also leaves. He tells her that it is too dangerous for him to stay and he has to go. That leaves Kya with that abusive father. But Kya is a child of the marsh land and the swamps. They entertain her, teach her and hide her. She simply hides in the marshes when things get scary.
Kya had heard all about the potential horrors of foster care. She tries school for one day and then cannot bring herself to go back. The town sees the father and little daughter as trash and they do not really want to be involved. Kya’s dad stops drinking for a while and they fish together and motor around the marshes in his small boat but eventually he starts drinking and gambling and once again gets abusive. Eventually, when Kya is only ten, he also leaves and doesn’t come back. She barely survives but she uses the gifts from the sea.
What the beaches and marshes of the South Carolina lowlands come to mean to Kya, the deep loneliness she feels, that she sees herself as unlovable among humans but an accepted part of the beaches and marshes and swamps and clearings that she comes to know and love, eventually offers her some ways out of poverty and solitude. She meets two men, Tate, who shares her love of the lowlands and who teaches her to read, who brings her books and her first kiss. The second man is of the town and if Kya was not so lonely she would not have been involved with him.
I avoided reading this book for quite a while because I guess I am not very enamored of crawdads, but it was a compelling story, whether believable or not. Delia Owens leaves you with some things to think about, and if you finish it you will see why it was freaky to have those fireflies visit while I was reading Kya’s story.
Photo – From a Google Image Search – The Bibliofile
I did it! I fit an entire decade into two volumes. So you can buy my essays by the year or you can get the whole megillah all at once.
Omnibus Edition 1 covers 2010-2016
These essays were all written in the administration of Barrack Obama. They show a Republic Party that had been radicalized by the Tea Party movement, the Federalists, the NRA, and a web of Conservative think tanks and policy groups. Fundamentalists had their own influential groups that also worked with the Conservative web. It became clear that there was a concerted effort to put forth an firm agenda for the way Conservatives planned to steer government into the future. We came to know these agenda items as ‘talking points’. It also became clear that Republicans were looking for members who would lead aggressively and who would not put too fine a point on civility. The groundwork for this agenda was laid out before Obama won, but the obstructionism and the racism, the voter suppression, and the reactionary attitudes towards women and immigrants became Republican strategy and this strategy is still in use today. Conservatives seem dedicated to winning a final battle with liberalism, once and for all. As you read these essays you can watch this campaign unfold.
Omnibus Edition 2 with bonus material covers 2017-2020
Donald J. Trump was elected to be America’s 45 th President in 2016. He was inaugurated in 2017 and joined an elite club of men who have led American through good times and bad. From the beginning he seemed to deliberately govern America as if he were a king or a mafia don. He does not ever worry about representing all Americans. He is, clearly, the “Red State” President with his own supporters, his own media and his own agenda, which also includes helping the Republicans and the Fundamentalists accomplish their agenda when doing so suits his purposes.
What ensues in the first term of Trump is the subject of this book, which covers the essays I wrote during Trump’s first term in office. Since I would like to get these thoughts out in time to convince voters of how important it will be to replace the Republicans and Donald Trump with Democrats if we want our republic to survive, I had to publish before the end of 2020.
We are in the midst of trying to emerge from a pandemic and whether this virus is done with us or not remains to be seen. If there is a second wave of the virus we are unsure what will happen to the American economy. This administration does not value workers except as cogs in a Capitalist machine that drives the stock market. This is not an argument against Capitalism. It is an argument against a misguided ideology that divides people into winners and losers and plans to give the winners dominion over the losers.
Rogue Protocol: Book 3: Murderbot Diariesby Martha Wells continues the adventures of our rogue Murderbot. This is a very strange Murderbot and, as a reader, questions begin to arise. Are all murderbots unhappy with their assignment as killing machines? Do all murderbots feel guilt and have as many self-conscious thoughts as our Murderbot? Could all murderbots override their governor modules and go rogue? If so why aren’t there rogue murderbots all over the place? Did a vague memory of a mass killing that ghosts around in the wiped memory of our bot trigger it to get control of its governor module? Is our bot especially intelligent (it has a very healthy ego), or is that all learned behavior since it now controls its own memory. When we first met Murderbot all it wanted was to be left alone to watch the humans shows and series that it had downloaded. As it gets deeply embroiled in the problems real humans are having, that seem to center around one particular ruthless corporation, it has less and less time to be alone or to devote time to its entertainment feed. Is it that addiction to the entertainment feed that has increased our bot’s self-awareness, hacking talents, and problem-solving abilities?
We humans have spent lots of time thinking deep thoughts about artificial intelligence and how we will interact with robots. There are classic science fiction books about possible glitches in interfaces between humans and machines that look like humans. Isaac Asimov’s book I, Robot gave us three classic rules for robot behavior.
Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”
A robotmay not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robotmust obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robotmust protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Part of the fun of the Murderbot Diaries is that here is an autonomous (although fictional) robot that gives us access to its thoughts and feelings. It’s an interesting twist because we are usually exploring what we think about interacting with robots rather than what robots might think about interacting with us.
Our bot took the name Eden for a while, but at the end of the duties it took on in Book 2, after it went to see the scene of the nearly wiped mass murder in the Ganaka Pit (a mining operation) it had to avoid pursuit and rename itself. It decided to call itself Rin. When Murderbot checks through news feeds to see if he is being hunted, he learns that his new “owner”, Dr. Mensah, is having trouble with that same ruthless corporation they have run into before, a corporation that will kill to get what it wants, and kill to keep the illegal things it is doing a secret. Dr. Mensah could have been a victim of this corporation without the skills of Murderbot, but now GrayCris (the bad guys) are trying to blame everything on her and are taking her to court. Eden/Rin’s first thought is to gather some evidence that she can use to get the corporation to leave her alone. He hears about a terraforming operation at Milu which failed. The domes were supposed to fall back into the planet as they normally would, but they were purchased at the last minute by another corporation.
Since GrayCris was the company that built the terraforming domes and left so abruptly Murderbot thought that the company might have been up to something illegal once again. If he could get evidence and if he could get it to Dr. Mensah it might end her legal difficulties and allow her to go home to her peaceful community where security was unnecessary. Of course she can’t stay in her home forever since she is a research scientist, but most people do all kinds of things on other moons or planets without running afoul of a company bent on criminal activity. Murderbot is used to needing distance and a certain disconnection in order to feel comfortable around humans. Some things he experiences in Martha Wells book Rogue Protocol might help him begin to understand how a bot and a human can be friends. Murderbot Diaries are fun and easy to read, difficult to put down and they feel like a ride on a really fast space transport.
Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Fiction Unbound
Europe is in an economic recession and it is flooded with refugees who cannot speak the language of their new nations and who have difficulty finding work that will pay enough to support their families, or even a single person. In this post 9/11 world refugees inhabit areas around Europe’s cities and some mosques are centers of religious radicalism where young men are recruited to terrorize the West. Portrait of a Spy(Gabriel Allon Series, Book 11) by Daniel Silva deals with an environment we recognize from our very recent past, a set of circumstances that could easily flare up again in the future.
Gabriel Allon, now a retired Israeli spy, leaves his cottage in Cornwall to visit Isherwood Studios in London, run by Julian Isherwood, friend of Gabriel and of Israel. Gabriel is a talented art restorer who often restores damaged paintings, sometimes for Isherwood. Gabriel’s wife Chiara is with him. As they are walking near Covent Garden Gabriel spots a suicide bomber. Bombs have been used in the past few days in Paris and in Copenhagen, and a bomb is about to detonate in Central London.
No one else identifies this man as a terrorist but Gabriel’s experiences set off warning signals. He even knows what time the bomber will trigger the detonator because it is timed to when a plane hit a target on 9/11. Gabriel is almost on time to stop the killing. Gabriel has his gun out to shoot the bomber when two London policemen arrest him. The bomber detonates. Gabriel’s guilt calls him back to duty as a spy. He even has a fair idea of who is running this group of terrorists. When he is vouched for by Graham Seymour, head of MI5 he joins forces with Adrian Carter of the CIA in Washington, DC and a cohort he has hunted down bad actors with on the world stage many times. Chiara is on board and eventually his team joins him in the new high tech national security center in DC.
The man Gabriel is seeking has been out of view for years and is believed dead. But Gabriel does not believe it. Word is that the terrorist group is running out of money which means these guys will go to ground for a while. Gabriel visits a young and wealthy Arab business woman he met when she was a young girl in the South of France (Book #6, The Messenger). Nadia al-Bakari was with her father (a wealthy funder of terrorists) when Gabriel killed him. She is also a philanthropist, helping especially Arab women. Nadia forgives Gabriel and agrees to buy a recently restored painting to create pool of invisible money that will go to tempt the terrorist and his group into the open.
As usual with Gabriel Allon spy thrillers the plan unfolds in great detail before we get to the actual op and the usually violent end game. Terrorists and other bad actors who stay hidden are well-guarded and very paranoid. They are hard to kill. Gabriel does not usually get off without injury. We always wonder what will happen to him this time. He also does not like to put others in danger, although he will do what he must to take out someone whose intent is to harm many. How do things turn out for Nadia?
It is Silva’s contention that Saudi Wahhabism has led to a good deal of the terrorism unleashed on Europe and America. He also feels that America’s supposed Allies, the Saudi’s, are responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the intended attack on Washington that shocked America and the world. And yet we remain tied to Saudi Arabia, probably for oil more than loyalty. A fiction author, such as Daniel Silva, writing a spy thriller like Portrait of a Spy, is freer than others to speak candidly about his world view and these spy thrillers always connect to events in the real world. This one upped my heart rate.
Equally bizarre, as I am writing this it is 9/11, seventeen years later, and they are reading the names of those killed in the attack on the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center on my TV news. A most strange coincidence.