The Order | Book Review


**********SPOILERS ALERT**********

Daniel Silva has written some of my favorite suspense novels. The Order is not among them. While the book’s topic—the antisemitism of Europe’s far right, and its intermingling with Catholicism—is both interesting and relevant, the book’s execution is not.

Let me, first, deal with the topic. Antisemitism is on the rise in Europe, as well as the United States. One source of that is the European far right, whose nationalist parties verge on or veer into fascism. Historically, some of those parties held close ties with traditionalist forms of Catholicism. The fact of those ties is not a matter of dispute, though their extent is. (Think of the strenuous debates about Pius XII the Shoah, for example.)

One of the reasons for Catholicism’s antisemitism problem—and for Protestantism’s too—is the anti-Jewish polemic of several passages in the New Testament. For example, during the nighttime trial of Jesus by the Sanhedrin, we read this in Matthew 27:25: “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’” This verse historically served as the basis for the Christian accusation of deicide against the Jewish people.

These two elements—far-right antisemitism, Catholic antisemitism—are the fuel that drives The Order forward. And Gabriel Allon seems like the perfect driver for Silva’s vehicle. The lone child of a Birkenau survivor, a young assassin who meted out justice against Palestinian terrorists in the wake of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes, the director of Mossad, a spy with friendly ties to the current pope, if anyone can stop far-right anti-Semites, Allon can. And should.

But, and it’s a very large but, the way Silva executes the plot strains credulity. My two rules for successful suspense novels are that they 1) keep me turning pages and 2) don’t push my willing suspension of disbelief too far. Silva is such a talented writer that he easily satisfied my rule. I read this late into the night one Saturday evening.

The Order fails at the level of my second rule, however. Why? Largely because Silva steers the plot onto Christian origins and drives it badly there. 

I’ve noted Matthew 27:25 and hinted at other New Testament passages that have served as the basis of Christian antisemitism, historically speaking. Instead of reading these passages as examples of intra-Jewish polemic, which they are, Silva’s plot requires that they be read as late historical inventions designed by Christians to curry favor with the Romans. This leads him to deny the historicity of these trials in toto, though not Jesus’ crucifixion.

To underscore the historical unreliability of the Gospel Accounts, Silva concocts a mysterious document called The Gospel According to Pontius Pilate that tells the unvarnished truth about Jesus’ death. (Of course, no such document exists, nor does Silva claim it’s real.)

At the same time as Allon and his colleagues search for this elusive Gospel, they uncover the machinations of the Order of St. Helena, a secretive and wealthy Catholic order with fascist ties and a desire to capture the papacy. To do that, the order murders Allon’s friend the pope, the event that sets the novel rolling in the first place.

The plot of The Order turns on whether Allon will be able both to find Pilate’s gospel and to reveal publicly the Order’s murderous designs. Since this is Gabriel Allon we’re talking about, the conclusion is foregone.

And yet, the book doesn’t work, at least not for me. I have graduate training in Bible and theology, so I’m aware of the debates about the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. To be honest, I find the notion that such a trial could never have taken place not credible. The notion that Jerusalem’s first-century priestly aristocracy was too scrupulous and too busy to hold a night-time trial on the eve of Passover strains this reader’s credulituy. In fact, the first-century high priests were criticized by multiple segments of Jewish society. If you think the Gospels are rough on the Temple aristocracy, try reading the Qumran community’s view of them, or Josepus’.

Moreover, the entire plot of The Order depends on a cabal of religious leaders breaking and bending rules in order to arrive at a politically desirable destination. Does Silva not recognize the contradiction of saying that a power-hungry Catholic order can do precisely what he denies a power-hungry Temple aristocracy could do? This seems psychologically implausible to me. When power is on the line, powerful people can and do break the rules to maintain their grip on power. That’s essentially what the Gospels accuse the priestly aristocracy of doing in Jesus’ day. It’s what Silva accuses the Order of doing.

The reason Silva seems to find such an accusation implausible is because of how that accusation was misread and abused in later centuries by Gentile Christians. And let’s be very clear: Silva is absolutely right that in the history of Christianity, passages such as Matthew 27:25 were used by Christian theologians and political leaders across centuries and denominations—Catholic and Protestant—to lay the charge of deicide at the feet of the Jewish people as a whole. This was and is both a sin and a stain, and such charges of deicide need to be firmly and persistently refuted.

But one can point out that a passage has been wrenched out of its original intra-Jewish polemical context and abused by Gentile Christians without undermining the basic historicity of the passage, as Silva does. The Gospels were written at a time when what became Judaism and what became Christianity had not yet parted ways. Many, if not most, “Christians” during this period were also “Jews.” Indeed, Josephus writes complimentarily about James, the brother of Jesus, who led the Jerusalem church up to the eve of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. So, was James a Jew or a Christian? It’s anachronistic to force a choice between the two.

One more thing before I conclude: In the course of debunking the historicity of the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ trial—among other things—Silva introduces a mysterious Father Joshua at two points in the novel, one crucial and another less so. To me, this figure—with stigmata, no less!—is so obviously a Christ figure that his appearance introduces massive cognitive dissonance into the story. On the one hand, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and divinity are unreliable. On the other hand, Father Joshua appears out of nowhere, provides Allon with crucial proof of Pilate’s gospel, speaks with a Galilean accent, and even appears at one point to be walking on the waters of Venice! If you’re going to be skeptical, be skeptical, Mr. Silva! Don’t also be mystical at the same time!

So, two stars from me for The Order. It’s a page-turner, sure, but it pushed my willing suspension of disbelief too far. The Order, if I may say so, is The Da Vinci Code if Dan Brown could write as well as Daniel Silva. But that comparison doesn’t improve the latest Gabriel Allon mystery, unfortunately.

Book Reviewed

Daniel Silva, The Order (New York: Harper, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

The Other Woman | Book Review


When Daniel Silva publishes a new Gabriel Allon novel, I read it as quickly as I can. I get up early to read it, catch a few pages during breaks throughout the day, and stay up late until it’s finished. Some people binge-watch their favorite shows on Netflix. I binge-read spy books.

And so it was with The Other Woman, the latest installment in Silva’s long-running series. In it, Gabriel Allon, chief of Israel’s Mossad, discovers there’s a mole near the top of a Western intelligence agency. Discovering who the mole is and what agency has been compromised before any more damage can be done is the engine that drives the plot forward.

As with all murder and suspense books, my chief criterion of a well-told tale is whether it keeps me turning pages. If a suspense book especially doesn’t grab my attention and force me to keep reading because I absolutely must know what happens next, then it’s not a very good suspense book. By that criterion, The Other Womanis a success.

The book also kept my attention because the plot hinges on Cold War history. I can’t go into detail without spoiling things, so I’ll just say that James Jesus Angleton’s description of counterintelligence as “a wilderness of mirrors” is an apt description of The Other Woman’s plot. Angleton was obsessed that Russia had a mole in the CIA, an obsession grounded in the all-to-real treachery of Kim Philby and the other members of the infamous Cambridge Five, but his obsession also tore relations between Western intelligence agencies apart. That kind of obsession is in play here too.

One of the downsides of page-turners is that you often only see the plot’s weaknesses in hindsight. That was the case here too. In the moment, I thought the Cold War-related plot (again, no details because…spoilers!) worked well. But on reflection, I started to think it was highly implausible. Once you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and you can draw your own conclusions.

Even with this caveat, The Other Womanis an entertaining read, a trip down Cold War Memory Lane, and a reminder that in the real world, the New Boss of Russia is the same as the Old Boss, and neither is the good guy.

Book Reviewed
Daniel Silva, The Other Woman (New York: HarperCollins, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

House of Spies | Book Review


House of Spies is set four months after the events depicted in The Black Widow. Washington DC is recovering from the worst terror attack on it since 9/11. The terrorist known as Saladin is still on the loose, however, and the intelligence services of the U.S., Britain, France, and Israel are frantically searching for him to prevent his next atrocity.

When Britain uncovers a loose thread in a criminal organization allied with Saladin, its chief of intelligence asks Gabriel Allon to pull it. The unraveling takes Gabriel and his team around the world in a non-stop, nail-biting quest to take out the terrorist. House of Spies is a page-turner whose fictional plot is scarily real.

A book like House of Spies can be read as a stand-alone novel, of course, but the bigger pay-off comes when you read it as part of the entire series. Indeed, the novel makes much more sense when you read it after its immediate predecessor, The Black Widow. I’m a huge fan of Daniel Silva, and I highly recommend this novel. It’s a measure of how good it is that I read the entire thing in two days.

 

Book Reviewed:
Daniel Silva, House of Spies (New York: Harper, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘The English Spy’ by Daniel Silva


The-English-SpyDaniel Silva, The English Spy (New York: Harper, 2015). Hardcover | Kindle

When the glamorous ex-wife of the heir to the British throne is murdered, Israeli intelligence reveals to British intelligence that the murderer was Irish terrorist-for-hire Eamon Quinn. Then it offers to put legendary Mossad agent Gabriel Allon on the case, and Allon brings on Christopher Keller—ex-SSA officer turned assassin-for-hire—for good measure. Turns out, Allon and Keller have a personal beef with Quinn, and when it’s personal, things get messy. Daniel Silva’s newest installment in the long-running Gabriel Allon series is fast-paced and full of plot twists. If international spy thrillers are your thing, this one’s well worth reading.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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