I know there are plenty of fans of Daniel Silva, but I had never read his books. I am so glad to have changed that with The English Girl, because this writer is much better than the usual mediocre fare one finds in massive amounts in airports and other purveyors of fast-food-books. I didn’t even know, before reading it, that this book is in fact the 13th in a series featuring “the legendary Israeli spy and assassin” Gabriel Allon, but a lack of knowledge of the previous twelve didn’t affect my ability to enjoy the book in the slightest.
Gabriel Allon is contacted to conduct a very sensitive mission for the British. Madeline Hart, a beautiful young up-and-coming star in the British governing party, has been kidnapped. To make matters worse, she happens to be the mistress of British Prime Minister Jonathan Lancaster. Graham Seymour, Deputy Director of Britain’s MI5 (analogous to the American FBI) calls upon Allon to help deal with the situation because if MI5 or MI6 (the intelligence service) got involved, it would leak. In addition, Seymour told Allon, “you’re also damn good at finding things…”
The kidnappers have left a note for Lancaster giving him seven days to meet their demands or Madeline will die. The British haven’t the slightest idea even who the kidnappers are, or how they knew about Madeline. So Allon not only has to race against the clock, but do it in the most unfavorable circumstances imaginable. He knows just whom to recruit, however, to help him accomplish the impossible, and he takes off for the Isle of Corsica, where Madeline was last seen. From this beautiful island just off the South of France, the trail leads to Provence and elsewhere, as Allon risks his life to find the girl, find her kidnappers, or in the worse case scenario, avenge her death.
Discussion: I’m thinking if I were to write a mystery, I too would set it in places like Corsica and Provence, just so I would have to spend time there to do research. The author also takes us to Russia, and clearly, he is familiar with the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg as well. While I can’t vouch for his descriptions of the South of France region (“But Jim!” I said: “We need to go there so I can write this review properly!”), Silva’s impressions of Russia are exactly like mine when I went there. Well, except for being chased by murderers and all.
An “Author’s Note” after the story talks about the political situation in both Britain and Russia which play a role in the story. The issues are quite timely, especially given the current escalation in unhappy relations among the U.S., Britain, and Russia. You may, in fact, have heard of the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian whistleblower who had alleged there was a multimillion-dollar embezzlement scheme sanctioned and carried out by Russian officials. He was then arrested on what many were convinced were fabricated charges of tax fraud and subsequently beaten to death. Russia’s own human rights agency found that Magnitsky was tortured in prison and denied medical care. In retaliation, the U.S. Congress, rarely able to agree on anything, managed to come together in December 2012 to pass the bipartisan Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on 18 Russians involved in Magnitsky’s detention. In response, the Russian government blocked any adoptions of Russian children by U.S. citizens, and also came up with their own list of 18 people banned from entering Russia. (They include some names associated with human rights violations at Guantanamo, as well as some U.S. officials involved in the prosecution and trial of Russian arms and drugs smugglers who are serving prison time in the United States.)
Silva is outspokenly in the camp that believes that Vladimir Putin is leading Russia on a “steady descent into authoritarianism.” This outlook, definitely shared by most media in the U.S. and Britain, informs the background of the story.
Jill’s Evaluation: This book has a nice build-up of tension, intrigue, and danger; a very appealing hero in Allon; plenty of action, and some touching moments as well. I also like the humor the author employs to lighten the story – much better than the usual boring diversionary subplot. There’s a small bit involving a fortune-teller I would have omitted, but I like to keep paranormal elements strictly closed off in their own genre.
Jim’s Impression: While the story kept me turning the pages, I find that LeCarre (to whom Silva has been compared) is much more nuanced, and draws his characters with more depth. LeCarre writes about people with real human-like limitations. This book is about cartoon characters. In LeCarre’s books, no one is physically capable of doing anything that several of these characters routinely do. I loved the Jewish humor repartee, but like Jill, I would have cut out the fortune-teller part. But this book definitely provides a quick, entertaining read.
Published by HarperCollins, 2013