Portrait of an Unknown Woman is the 22nd installment in Daniel Silva’s long-running series of spy novels featuring Gabriel Allon. It is set sometime in the present, taking place after the Capitol riot of January 6, 2021, an event which concluded its predecessor, The Cellist. Allon was in Washington D.C. that day and survived an assassination attempt.
As Silva’s most recent novel opens, Allon has retired as head of Mossad. He has moved to Venice, Italy, with his wife Chiara and twin children. Together, they will work at the art restoration firm where Allon, undercover with a pseudonym, worked for many years as a leading restorer of Old Masters paintings.
The plot centers around the connection between art forgery and high finance. Allon’s friend Julian Isherwood recently sold an Old Master for several million dollars. When he receives a handwritten letter indicating the portrait may be a forgery, when the letter writer is killed in an accident, and when sometime tries to run him down too, he contacts Allon to look into things.
The more Allon looks, the more dangerous circumstances become for him and his friends. In order to catch an art forger, Allon becomes an art forger, setting up a sequence of events that lead to multiple scandals throughout the international art world.
Portrait of an Unknown Woman is unlike Silva’s previous novels because Allon is no longer works for Mossad. It has the feel of a detective story rather than a spy story. Even with the change of circumstances in Allon’s life, however, I enjoyed the novel, reading it through in a couple of sittings.
I read a number of novel series, including Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch stories and Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire stories. As the characters age, the writers have to determine what to do with their characters. By my reckoning, Allon is at least 68 in 2022 and has been part of Mossad for 50 years. This means he is no longer capable of some of the physical heroics of Silva’s earlier novels, none of which are present in Portrait, thankfully. (Craig Johnson, take note!)
By the same token, however, it’s difficult to see where Silva goes from here. He can pull Allon back into the espionage game, turn him into an erstwhile private investigator (as in this novel), or go back in time to Allon’s earlier Mossad exploits. If Silva sticks to his publishing schedule, we’ll know what track he has taken in summer 2023.
I enjoyed Portrait of an Unknown Woman, and I look forward to Silva’s next novel. But given the advancing age of Gabriel Allon and his retirement, I’m not sure how many more installments this series has.
Daniel Silva, Portrait of an Unknown Woman (New York: Harper, 2022).
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