The Collector is the twenty-third entry in your wildly successful #1 New York Times bestselling series featuring legendary spy and art restorer Gabriel Allon. One reviewer wrote that Gabriel has “skills that would make James Bond weep,” and another said you are one of “the greatest spy novelists the genre has ever known.” What explains the success of your long and successful collaboration with Gabriel Allon?
I think Gabriel’s essential appeal lies in the two very different sides of his character. He’s not just a brilliant intelligence operative, he’s one of the world’s finest art restorers. That unique combination of attributes allows me to craft my stories in a way that makes them different from most spy novels. I try to avoid the conventions of the genre whenever possible. Yes, The Collector is a novel of espionage and international intrigue that deals with perhaps the most pressing and dangerous issue of our time. But it begins when Gabriel undertakes a search for the world’s most valuable missing painting.
The Collector is also incredibly funny at times. Is that intentional on your part?
Usually, humor finds its way into the scenes of its own accord. Gabriel has changed a great deal as he’s gotten a bit older and made peace with his terrible past. He has a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor that tends to reveal itself when the reader least expects it. There were points during the editing process, when my wife I and read the book aloud, that we were both incapacitated with laughter.
Having retired as the chief of Israeli intelligence, Gabriel is living full-time in Venice and working as an art restorer. How has that changed the series?
For all the obvious reasons—namely, the food, the scenery, and the art—Venice is a spectacular setting for a series. If the truth be told, I’m quite envious of my character. Gabriel and his family have taken up residence in a beautiful palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal. In fact, the view from his loggia is similar to the image on the cover of The Collector. As you might imagine, he enjoys his life there a great deal. He lives under his real name but keeps a rather low profile. If you were to bump into him in a wine bar or in the Piazza San Marco, you would never imagine that he was once the director-general of the Israeli secret intelligence service—or that he personally killed dozens of men in defense of his country and his people. Instead, you would think that he’s a rather handsome, soft-spoken Italian gentleman of a certain age with peculiarly green eyes and distinctive gray hair at his temples.
You speak of Gabriel Allon as though he were a real person.
Gabriel does indeed seem like a real person to me at this point, as do all of the major continuing characters in the Allon series. I spend more time in their world than I do in this one. When my work is going well, I feel as though I’m merely writing down what I’m observing and overhearing.
One of those recurring characters is General Cesare Ferrari, the endearing but manipulative commander of the Italian Art Squad. At the outset of The Collector, he prevails upon Gabriel to investigate a startling discovery that the Italian police have made in the Amalfi Coast villa of a murdered South African shipping tycoon and art collector named Lukas van Damme.
That discovery is a secret vault room containing an empty frame and stretcher matching the dimensions of The Concert by Johannes Vermeer, one of thirteen works of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in March 1990—the biggest art heist in history. After determining that Van Damme had indeed been in possession of the Vermeer, Gabriel quickly attempts to track down the iconic painting before the trail once again goes cold.
His search takes him to a remote village on the northern coast of Denmark, where he meets one of the most compelling characters you’ve ever created. Tell us about Ingrid Johansen.
Ingrid is a freelance IT and cybersecurity professional who lives in a beautiful home overlooking the North Sea. She also happens to be a rather accomplished computer hacker and master thief. Generally, she sticks to jewelry and cash or the occasional rare book. But when an associate offered her ten million euros to steal the Vermeer, she unwisely accepted the job, not realizing that she was merely a pawn in a much larger conspiracy, one that might well get her killed.
Ingrid is also dangerously attractive, wickedly funny, and not bad with a gun or a cue stick. Is there any chance that we might see her in future books?
I can’t imagine we won’t. I knew from the moment I started writing Ingrid that she was quite special. She’s one of those characters who simply jumps off the page.
Like many of your novels, The Collector is a seamless blend of fact and fiction, beginning with the painting at the center of the conspiracy. What made you decide to write about the Gardner Museum heist and the missing Vermeer?
Fascination, I suppose, but mainly anger. This year, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is staging the largest exhibition of Vermeer’s work in history. But it doesn’t include The Concert because two thieves stole it from the Gardner Museum during the early-morning hours of March 18, 1990, and the painting hasn’t been seen since. Neither, for that matter, has Rembrandt’s A Lady and Gentleman in Black or The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, or Édouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni. The two thieves, and the larger criminal network that undoubtedly was behind them, did more than steal a few paintings. They robbed successive generations of the ability to see the works in person, to experience their beauty, to feel their emotion and power. Cash and jewels can be replaced, but The Concert by Johannes Vermeer is part of the Western canon, a sacred object.
What are the chances that the paintings and other works of art will ever resurface?
I’m afraid they’re growing smaller and smaller with each passing year. It’s very troubling to me that a no-questions-asked reward of $10 million, an unprecedented sum of money, has failed to entice the thieves or the person who now controls the paintings to turn them over. Anthony Amore, the Gardner Museum’s director of security, believes the stolen works are probably within a sixty-mile radius of Boston. But The Collector explores the theory advanced by legendary art detective Charles Hill that the loot made its way from Boston to a criminal gang in Ireland.
In your fictitious version of the events, The Concert ended up in the hands of an unscrupulous collector. But do such people really exist?
Many experts say there is no such thing as the wealthy collector who acquires illegally what he cannot purchase legitimately, that he is a fantasy of fertile imaginations. They even have a name for him. They call him Dr. No, the title character of Ian Fleming’s spy thriller featuring British secret agent James Bond. I think that is mostly true. But there is also a thriving black market for stolen and looted objects of art, and a growing number of global superrich who have acquired their wealth illicitly. Therefore, I refuse to rule out the possibility that The Concert by Johannes Vermeer has changed hands for a large sum of money. But it’s also possible that the Gardner paintings are rotting in a basement in South Boston—or even that they have been destroyed or lost.
You write in The Collector that criminal networks are quite good at stealing art but haven’t a clue how to bring it to market. As a result, stolen paintings end up being used as underworld cash, that they move from gang to gang, usually as collateral, sometimes as tribute and trophies.
Unfortunately, that is indeed the case. Art is very portable, and easily smuggled. Once it enters the bloodstream of the criminal underworld, it can circulate for years before someone finally decides to cash in by selling it or returning it to the original owner for a reward.
In The Collector, the Vermeer changes hands as part of a very large and dangerous illicit transaction, one involving an unfinished nuclear weapon built by the South Africa’s White-minority government during the dying days of apartheid.
South Africa’s nuclear weapons program was among the most secretive ever undertaken, and by the late 1980s they had six gun-type bombs. A seventh was under construction in 1989 when South Africa voluntarily agreed to give up its nuclear weapons—in part because the embattled White-minority regime didn’t want to leave an atomic arsenal in the hands of a Black-led successor government. The weapons were dismantled under international supervision, but the Black-majority government retains control of nearly five hundred pounds of highly enriched uranium. The fissile material, which has been melted down and cast into ingots, is stored in a former silver vault at the Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center, where it remains an extremely inviting target for thieves and terrorists.
What might happen if a bad actor were able get his hands on it?
Nuclear experts say that slamming two pieces of the material together at high speed would likely result in a sizable nuclear explosion. Therefore, the South African highly enriched uranium is considered some of the most dangerous, and vulnerable, fissile material on the planet. The Obama administration invested a great deal of time and effort trying to convince the Black-majority government to surrender the material. Unfortunately, to no avail.
Gabriel Allon discovers that there were two unfinished South African bombs and that the explosive core of the previously unknown weapon has found its way into the hands of the Russians. Needless to say, their intentions are less than honorable.
Actually, they’re planning to use the explosive material carry out a false-flag nuclear incident that they will blame on the Ukrainians. Which would in turn give the Kremlin a pretext, however thin, to use their own arsenal of tactical weapons to bring this disastrous war to a swift and decisive conclusion.
Why would a country with six thousand nuclear weapons need to acquire a weapon on the black market?
Because we possess the ability, by testing the radiation generated by a nuclear explosion, to identify the source of the fissile material. For the false-flag attack to have even a hint of credibility, the highly enriched uranium could not come from Russia’s existing nuclear stockpile.
Given the news lately, your plot sounds all too plausible.
Several people that I relied on for technical and strategic advice were so concerned about the possibility of a Russian nuclear attack in Ukraine that they thought my book might be dated by the time it was published.
What is the likelihood, in your opinion, that Russia will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine?
Greater than zero.
Can you elaborate?
In the autumn of 2022, American officials became alarmed that Vladimir Putin and his military advisers were casting about for a pretext to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine—so alarmed, in fact, that President Biden took the extraordinary step of publicly warning Putin that he would be making an “incredibly serious mistake” were he to do so. Most diplomats, intelligence officials, and military analysts insist the threat has receded, but opinion is far from universal. One former senior US intelligence official told me the chances of a Russian nuclear attack in Ukraine were somewhere “between 25 and 40 percent.” The threat level would increase significantly if Putin were confronted with a catastrophic military defeat that might lead to his removal from power and the loss of his ill-gotten billions.
In typical Daniel Silva fashion, what begins as a quest by Gabriel to find the missing Vermeer soon becomes a desperate race against time to stop an attack that could ignite a nuclear conflict between Russia and the West. And much of the action occurs in a gilded suburb of Moscow called Rublyovka.
It’s located west of Moscow, a few kilometers outside the M25 orbital ring road. To describe it as exclusive is a vast understatement. Rublyovka is one of the most expensive places in the world to live. It also happens to be extraordinarily secure. I can speak from experience that outsiders aren’t terribly welcome. Many of the residents are wildly rich oligarchs and Kremlin elites. They live in garish mansions in walled developments, watched over by the police and their own private security details. Rublyovka is truly a monument to the kleptocracy that Vladimir Putin created after coming to power in Russia in 1999.
The Collector contains the following observation of the Kremlin’s crackdown on internal dissent: “Nowhere was there any sign of opposition, for even mild opposition, a shirt, a hand gesture, was no longer tolerated. The Russian president had recently referred to antiwar activists as scum and insects. It was rather tame in comparison to the standard Two Minutes Hate that appeared nightly on state-run television.”
I think it’s fair to say that political repression inside Russia has reached a level not seen since the days of Stalin. Obviously, there’s nothing along the lines of Stalin’s murderous Great Purge, but dissent of any kind is no longer tolerated, and opposition to the war in Ukraine is a crime. Perhaps most ominously, Russians are once again spying on their friends and neighbors and reporting suspicious behavior to the FSB, which is the successor to the KGB. And why wouldn’t they? The Russian people consume a steady diet of lies and patriotic hysteria each evening when they turn on their televisions. For Vladimir Putin, this is a matter of survival. What he fears most is a so-called color revolution—like the Orange Revolution that erupted in Ukraine in 2004 or the uprising in Libya that brought down Muammar Gadhafi. Putin watched the video of Gadhafi’s murder obsessively. He fears the same thing might one day happen to him.
Gabriel gains access to the Russian president’s inner circle, and the billionaires’ suburb of Rublyovka, with the help of a European energy executive. Tell us about Magnus Larsen.
Magnus Larsen is the charismatic, highly respected CEO of a Danish oil-and-gas company called DanskOil. While negotiating a Russian joint venture in Moscow in 2003, he was compromised by the FSB and has been acting as a Russian asset ever since. Gabriel offers Magnus a chance to redeem himself, and the CEO gladly takes it.
Kompromat, the Russian word for compromising material, plays an essential role in The Collector. You write that Russia is a kompromat state, that no one connected to the Kremlin and the inner circle has clean hands, that everyone is compromised.
It’s impossible to succeed in Russia without getting one’s hands dirty. That’s the way the system operates. It’s a gangster state run by the boss of bosses, Vladimir Putin.
Can we talk a little about your writing process?
The word process implies something orderly and methodical. About the only thing procedural about my work is that once I start a book, I write every day, seven days a week, until it is done.
Is it true that you don’t outline your books before you start writing?
I’ve tried it only once, and the final product looked nothing like the original outline. I find it much easier to simply carry the story and characters around in my head. Even though I don’t produce a written outline, I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going and how I intend to get there. Typically, I make adjustments as I press forward, rather like an artist applying a layer of obliterating paint and reworking a portion of the canvas.
Is it true that you write your books in pencil on yellow legal pads?
I’m afraid so. I used to think it was odd, but I’ve discovered that many writers still do, including Nelson DeMille. I like the quiet and the pace of writing in longhand, and I rarely have to make revisions. Oftentimes, I can pick up one of my old legal pads—yes, I keep them all—and find pages and pages of finished copy with no edits.
I hear you’re picky about your pencils.
You don’t know the half of it. My favorite pencil is the Mirado Black Warrior by Paper Mate. I use the number two. I’m also quite fond of the Dixon Ticonderoga. It doesn’t roll off my desk.
And your legal pad?
The Signa by Staples. The paper is very smooth. It doesn’t wear down my pencils as quickly.
I assume you don’t turn in your books that way.
No, I’m not completely crazy. They’re typed into Microsoft Word, one chapter per file. My wife is my primary editor, and I employ two of my oldest friends as proofreaders. We are all quite maniacal about typographical errors. When one slips into the book, I am always mortified.
According to the New York Times, you struggle with noise.
It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s true. When I was a journalist, I could write under the most extreme conditions. But fiction is different. I require dead silence to do my work. A barking dog or a leaf blower can really ruin my day. And, yes, I wash and fold my wife’s laundry while I’m working. She’s suffered through twenty-six novels with me. It’s the least I can do.