Spies and the Mossad, a Trio of Novels
In real life, the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, has successfully secured the safety of the State of Israel. In a less covert but still dramatic way, the Mossad has also had an impact on the genre of spy literature. Spies no longer have to be a thin-lipped James Bond type or a George Smiley, as this trio of books demonstrates with varying degrees of success.
House of Spies By Daniel Silva (Harper, 526 pp. $28.99)
The best-known Israeli spy in the genre is Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon, who in House of Spies—his 17th starring role—heads Israel’s intelligence agency. Following deadly attacks on the United States, England and France by a terrorist using the nom de guerre Saladin, Allon directs a joint task force made up of those beleaguered countries. His team recruits a couple—a wealthy restaurateur/drug dealer and a beautiful model/art gallery owner—to draw Saladin to a desert showdown in Morocco. It doesn’t end well: American missiles miss their mark and the agents’ identities are revealed with near-fatal results.
Silva’s prose is as energized and engaging as always, but the plot is rooted in revenge. Saladin was a bad guy who got away in the series’ previous book, The Black Widow, which is alluded to—way too often. Longtime Silva readers may revel in the familiarity; newcomers and genre fans might enjoy it, too, but they should meet Allon first in an earlier adventure.
Final Stop, Algiers: A Thriller By Mishka Ben-David. Translated by Ronnie Hope (Overlook Press, 354 pp. $26.95)
The most authentic book of the three reviewed here—particularly regarding spycraft—is Final Stop, Algiers, Mishka Ben-David’s third spy thriller. This is not surprising, since the author spent a dozen years as an agent in the Mossad.
Where Silva’s hero is an accomplished art restorer, Ben-David’s Mickey Simhoni is a promising artist. When his fiancée is killed during a terrorist attack, he eagerly accepts an invitation to join the Mossad, hoping to avenge her murder. After completing his training, Simhoni is assigned the identity of a deceased Canadian he closely resembles. Moving to Toronto, he reignites a romance with an old flame who also joins the Mossad. The pair and their handler are preparing for a big operation in Algiers.
When Simhoni becomes too close to the parents of the young man whose identity he has assumed or he kills innocents in the line of duty, he becomes guilt-ridden, asking whether the end justifies the means. Still, one can agree with his conclusion: “There is great hatred towards us and willingness to drive us away,
to launch a jihad against us. As long as that lasts, my commitment will last.”
Traitor: A Thriller By Jonathan de Shalit (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 320 pp. $27)
Traitor by the pseudonymous Jonathan de Shalit (in real life, a Mossad agent) opens in Rome in 1983. A low-level Israeli naval officer approaches the United States Embassy, demanding to speak to an intelligence officer. Motivated by money, the Israeli offers to spy on his native country for the United States, assuring the official that he is an up-and-comer and will be even more valuable in the years ahead.
But the embassy official is a mole, and he offers the Israeli’s services not to his American bosses but to his East German Stasi masters, who in turn use him until Germany is unified. Then the Russians coopt the spy, code-named Cobra, and to assure utmost secrecy, kill his East German handler.
In Traitor, it is the East German handler’s aging secretary who seeks revenge for the murder. Nearing death, she confesses to her priest the little she knows about the Israeli mole; the priest then reports the conversation to the German intelligence agency. The agency then informs Israel’s president—who opens an off-the-grid investigation. If you aren’t sufficiently confused by the plot, here are the book’s three main problems:
First, the plot has too many long speeches rather than interactive dialogue and action.
Second, considering de Shalit’s expertise as a Mossad agent, there is surprisingly little spycraft in the book. For example, when an Israeli travels to Russia under an assumed name to contact a retired spy who had dealings with Cobra, she travels with her real passport. (They couldn’t arrange a fake for her?)
Finally, and most importantly, there is no sense of urgency in this tale. Good spy stories have deadlines, races to prevent global tragedies. In Traitor, Cobra has spied for three decades—and until recently no one noticed!
This book proves that just because someone was once a high-ranking member of the Israeli intelligence community doesn’t mean he can write a good spy novel. Then again, this is only de Shalit’s debut effort; his second one, Cadet, to be published soon in Israel, may prove a more enthralling read.
Curt Schleier, a freelance writer, teaches business writing to corporate executives.