If you think that your enemies are going to eat you for dinner, it’s advisable that you eat them for breakfast. This maxim is at the heart of Daniel Silva’s The Other Woman, a spy story, the 18th in the Gabriel Allon series. Espionage works not unlike a Japanese Kumiki style of woodwork joinery, where one wooden piece interlocks with another, and holds it in place. So it is with the spies and their handlers.
What makes the story gripping is the duplicity of politics. Newspapers splash jolly pictures of Heads of State gripping each other’s hands, beaming smiles all around while the vast underground network of spies infiltrate and syphon information from each other. Some are lured by money, some by ambition, and some others spy for the thrill it provides, but the most dangerous is the one who is a spy out of idealism.
Gabriel Allon, an intelligence officer for the Israeli government, is in Vienna to rescue “Heathcliff” alias Konstantin Kirov, a Russian agent playing a double game and seeking to defect to Israel. With only a few paces to the flat where Gabriel Allon is waiting for him, a sharpshooter on a motorbike gets Kirov, leaving him dead. Newspapers flash Allon’s pictures in Austria’s morning papers and make it seem the work of Israelis. Allon is deeply perturbed. How did the news of his presence in Vienna leak when it was a guarded secret?
Clearly, their system is not watertight. Nothing or nobody is exempt from suspicion. His staff is under close scrutiny, but they pass the test. The search then extends to their British counterpart. Suspicion falls on Alistair Hughes, the British Head of Station in Vienna, who is privy to this information. He seems a very likely candidate, with his own private battles with anxiety and insomnia. Yet again an intelligence officer is snatched from under Allon’s very nose. Alistair Hughes is run over by a stray car and killed. Speculation of an Israeli involvement runs rife through the media. But Allon is not a newbie to the game. Almost instantaneously he deduces that Alistair Hughes was innocent but propped up to look suspicious for his own benefit. And that can have only one reason: to distract attention from the real mole. Allon has had enough of this game playing. The weak link in their chain of information or those of their Allies has to be found and soon, to save both innocent lives and his reputation. The search leads them to Werner Schwarz of the Austrian BVT. A little probing and pressure at the soft places lead him to cough up the name of Sergei Morosov, a businessman working for a consultant company in Frankfurt. With a delicacy common to the art of spying, and the generous help of Werner Schwarz, Sergei Morosov is located, overpowered, bound up like a bag of golf clubs and flown out to Israel. A gruelling session of questioning nudges Gabriel Allon’s memory of the legendary double-crossing agent Kim Philby, his meteoric rise in the ranks of Intelligence in Britain, and his final defection to Russia. Kim Philby has left messy relationships behind. This, in turn, leads him to the files on Kim Philby. The dead reveal secrets that remain undiscovered in their lifetime. And Allon’s journey now takes him to Andalusia in search of a lone woman “la loca”, the crazy one, as she is locally known. The search is on for the true mole amongst them.
The final part of the book is stepping on eggshells. How is one to unearth a mole, a high-ranking one at that, without letting it sense danger and flee, and without ruffling the feathers of one’s Allies? Allon, an Israeli citizen, has no right to kill or arrest anyone on a foreign soil.
The last few pages bring excitement to a rolling boil. There is high tension as the predator nears its quarry, and going the predictable way is no longer an option. Sudden decisions are made in the heat of the moment. Long years of training recede and it is a psychological detail that takes over, and three deaths occur in quick succession. But nobody is counting bodies any longer.
The end is a masterly stroke of realism. Allon is frustrated. He sees his work of uncovering the mole and delivering it up for its fair share of justice, receding. His once warm relationship with the Allies is ruined. Nobody likes an outsider pointing to the hole in your roof. Building the plot around Kim Philby, the brilliant master spy of the 20th century, adds authenticity. If you like a challenging read and refuse to get side-stepped by the numerous Russian names, then this is the book for you.