Stephen Jewell talks to Daniel Silva about the latest outing for his Israeli spy, Gabriel Allon.
"A few years ago, some Israelis got into trouble in your country, so I guess it wasn't a very good operation."
Daniel Silva is referring to the two Mossad agents who were jailed for six months in 2004 after fraudulently attempting to obtain New Zealand passports. Having written 15 best-selling thrillers about Israeli intelligence operative Gabriel Allon, the New York-based author would hope his hero would do a better job under such circumstances. But though his latest novel The English Spy takes in such diverse locations as London, Lisbon and Vienna, he is reluctant to send the master spy Downunder.
"I don't want Gabriel to go to New Zealand, because he tends to make a mess of wherever he goes," laughs Silva, although he personally has reasons for wanting to visit the country. "I was a long-distance runner as a child, which was during the hey-day of New Zealand track and field. Peter Snell was before my time but John Walker, Rod Dixon and Dick Quax were my heroes. I revere those guys, so I've had a connection with New Zealand for a very long time because of that."
Set during World War II, Silva's 1996 debut, The Unlikely Spy, centred around the Allies' attempt to conceal their true plans for D-Day. After two novels featuring CIA agent Michael Osbourne, The Kill Artist, the first instalment in Gabriel Allon's adventures, was published in 2000. "He was never supposed to be a continuing character," says Silva. "When I created him, he was supposed to appear in one book and one book only. I actually had to be talked into writing a second Gabriel Allon novel, so it was quite a long negotiation."
According to Silva, he was unsure whether a series centred around an Israeli protagonist could succeed long-term. "I thought there was so much anti-Israeli sentiment in the world - too much anti-Semitism, frankly - for Gabriel to ever truly be a mass-market character," he says. "So I had to be convinced to write the second book, but I've happily been proven wrong."
Unfortunately, that volatile situation has got only worse in the decade and a half since Allon's inaugural assignment.
"Israel is incredibly unpopular at the moment in certain quarters, and that's putting it mildly," he says. "It's a challenge writing a character who works for the Israeli secret services, but by the same token, I guess it gives the novels a really distinctive edge. Right now, I'm managing to stay on that tightrope and, in the United States at least, there's a huge segment of the population that remains deeply supportive of Israel, but I'm afraid that's not always going to be the case."
A former Middle East correspondent who also worked in CNN's Washington bureau, Silva's plotlines always seem to have been torn from the latest headlines. Speaking just a few days after more than 60 people were killed in separate attacks in Tunisia, France and Kuwait, he believes that what happened was probably co-ordinated at some level.
"We're now at a stage where there's a leaderless jihad, which is really scary as we have these people who are self-radicalising, such as that chap in Australia," he says, referring to the hostage crisis in Sydney last December. "But it's important to keep in mind that just because we're getting these one-off attacks carried out by terrorists who are already in place in those countries, it doesn't mean there isn't someone sitting in Yemen or Syria who is plotting a major 9/11-style spectacular."
Inspired by the assassination of Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1979, The English Spy opens with the murder of the unnamed ex-wife of a prominent member of the British royal family - who bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Princess Diana - after a bomb explodes aboard her luxury yacht in the Caribbean.
"The rest of the plot draws on something I discovered after the peace process in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, which was that afterwards there were a lot of really bad guys with a lot of time on their hands," he says. "Some of them went out into the world and sold their expertise to the highest bidder. One of the places where they ended up was Iran in 2006, as a delegation from the Real IRA or the Continuity IRA went to Tehran, where they were building weapons and roadside bombs for Hezbollah and the Shi'ite militias in Iraq."
Tasked with tracking down ruthless bombmaker Eamon Quinn, Allon once again teams up with British commando-turned-mercenary Christopher Keller, who first appeared in 2002's The English Assassin. "After that, I let him sit for 12 years," recalls Silva. "But I loved the character from the moment I put down the first words about him on the page, so I resurrected him and dropped him into The English Girl in 2013. The jump in my sales for that book were extraordinary, so I brought him back again and put him in The Heist last year. And now he's in this novel, which is all about the restoration of Christopher Keller, who goes from being the English Assassin to the English Spy."
A fan of James Bond when he was growing up, Silva insists that Allon is a very different character to that most famous of English spies, if only because he and 007 don't share the same drink tastes.
"Gabriel really loathes distilled spirits, and would rather have a glass of acetone," he laughs. "He's also happily married, so while there are definitely Bondian qualities about him, in many respects he is definitely not Bond."
The English Spy (HarperCollins $34.99) is out now.