Prince of Fire
Gabriel Allon faces his most determined enemy-and greatest challenge-in the stunning novel from the world-class practitioner of spy fiction.
ROME: MARCH 4
THERE HAD BEEN WARNING SIGNS—THE SHABBAT bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that left eighty-seven people dead; the bombing of an Istanbul synagogue, precisely one year later, that killed another twenty-eight—but Rome would be his coming-out party, and Rome would be the place where he left his calling card.
Afterward, within the corridors and executive suites of Israel’s vaunted intelligence service, there was considerable and sometimes belligerent debate over the time and place of the conspiracy’s genesis. Lev Ahroni, the ever-cautious director of the service, would claim that the plot was hatched not long after the Israeli army knocked down Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah and stole his secret files. Ari Shamron, the legendary Israeli master spy, would find this almost laughable, though Shamron often disagreed with Lev simply as a matter of sport. Only Shamron, who had fought with the Palmach during the War of Independence and who tended to view the conflict as a continuum, understood intuitively that the outrage in Rome had been inspired by deeds dating back more than a half century. Eventually, evidence would prove both Lev and Shamron correct. In the meantime, in order to achieve peaceful working conditions, they agreed on a new starting point: the day a certain Monsieur Jean-Luc arrived in the hills of Lazio and settled himself in a rather handsome eighteenth-century villa on the shore of Lake Bracciano.
As for the exact date and time of his arrival, there was no doubt. The owner of the villa, a dubious Belgian aristocrat called Monsieur Laval, said the tenant appeared at two-thirty in the afternoon on the final Friday of March. The courteous but intense young Israeli who called on Monsieur Laval at his home in Brussels wondered how it was possible to recall the date so clearly. The Belgian produced his lavish leather-bound personal calendar and pointed to the date in question. There, penciled on the line designated for 2:30 P.M., were the words: Meet M. Jean-Luc at Bracciano villa.
“Why did you write Bracciano villa instead of just villa?” asked the Israeli visitor, his pen hovering over his open notebook.
“To differentiate it from our St. Tropez villa, our Portuguese villa, and the chalet we own in the Swiss Alps.”
“I see,” said the Israeli, though the Belgian found that his visitor’s tone lacked the humility adopted by most civil servants when confronted by men of great wealth.
And what else did Monsieur Laval remember of the man who rented his villa? That he was punctual, intelligent, and extremely well-mannered. That he was strikingly good-looking, that his scent was noticeable but not obtrusive, that his clothing was expensive but restrained. That he drove a Mercedes car and had two large suitcases with gold buckles and a famous label. That he paid the entire monthlong lease in advance and in cash, which Monsieur Laval explained was not unusual in that part of Italy. That he was a good listener who didn’t need to be told things twice. That he spoke French with the accent of a Parisian from a well-heeled arrondissement. That he seemed like a man who could handle himself well in a fight and who treated his women well. “He was of noble birth,” Laval concluded, with the certainty of one who knows of what he speaks. “He comes from a good bloodline. Write that in your little book.”
Slowly, additional details would emerge about the man called Jean-Luc, though none conflicted with Monsieur Laval’s flattering portrait. He hired no cleaning woman and demanded the gardener arrive punctually at nine o’clock and leave by ten. He shopped in nearby market squares and attended Mass in the medieval lakeside village of Anguillara. He spent much time touring the Roman ruins of Lazio and seemed particularly intrigued by the ancient necropolis at Cerveteri.
Sometime in the middle of March—the date could never be reliably established—he vanished. Even Monsieur Laval could not be certain of the departure date, because he was informed after the fact by a woman in Paris who claimed to be the gentleman’s personal assistant. Though two weeks remained on the lease, the handsome tenant did not embarrass himself, or Monsieur Laval, by asking for a refund. Later that spring, when Monsieur Laval visited the villa, he was surprised to discover, in a crystal bowl on the dining room sideboard, a brief thank-you note, typewritten, along with a hundred euros to pay for broken wineglasses. A thorough search of the villa’s stemware collection, however, revealed nothing was missing. When Monsieur Laval tried to call Jean-Luc’s girl in Paris to return the money, he found that her telephone line had been disconnected.
ON THE FRINGES of the Borghese gardens there are elegant boulevards and quiet leafy side streets that bear little resemblance to the scruffy, tourist-trodden thoroughfares of the city center. They are avenues of diplomacy and money, where traffic moves at a nearly reasonable speed and where the blare of car horns sounds like a rebellion in distant lands. One such street is a cul-de-sac. It falls away at a gentle pitch and bends to the right. For many hours each day, it is in shadow, a consequence of the towering stone pine and eucalyptus that loom over the villas. The narrow sidewalk is broken by tree roots and perpetually covered by pine needles and dead leaves. At the end of the street is a diplomatic compound, more heavily fortified than most in Rome.
Survivors and witnesses would recall the perfection of that late-winter morning: bright and clear, cold enough in the shadows to bring on a shiver, warm enough in the sun to unbutton a wool coat and dream of an alfresco lunch. The fact it was also a Friday served only to heighten the leisurely atmosphere. In diplomatic Rome, it was a morning to dawdle over a cappuccino and cornetto, to take stock of one’s circumstances and ponder one’s mortality. Procrastination was the order of the day. Many mundane meetings were canceled. Much routine paperwork was put off till Monday.
On the little cul-de-sac near the Borghese gardens there were no outward signs of the catastrophe to come. The Italian police and security agents guarding the perimeter fortifications chatted lazily in the patches of brilliant sunshine. Like most diplomatic missions in Rome, it officially contained two embassies, one dealing with the Italian government, the second with the Vatican. Both embassies opened for business at their appointed times. Both ambassadors were in their offices.
At ten-fifteen a tubby Jesuit waddled down the hill, a leather satchel in his hand. Inside was a diplomatic démarche from the Vatican Secretariat of State, condemning the Israeli army’s recent incursion into Bethlehem. The courier deposited the document with an embassy clerk and puffed his way back up the hill. Afterward, the text would be made public, and its sharp language would prove a temporary embarrassment to the men of the Vatican. The courier’s timing would prove providential. Had he arrived five minutes later, he would have been vaporized, along with the original text of the démarche.
Not so fortunate were the members of an Italian television crew who had come to interview the ambassador on the current state of affairs in the Middle East. Or the delegation of local Jewish crusaders who had come to secure the ambassador’s public condemnation of a neo-Nazi conference scheduled for the following week in Verona. Or the Italian couple, sickened by the new rise of European anti-Semitism, who were about to inquire about the possibility of emigrating to Israel. Fourteen in all, they were standing in a tight cluster at the business entrance, waiting to be body-searched by the embassy’s short-haired security toughs, when the white freight truck made a right turn into the cul-de-sac and began its death run toward the compound.
Most heard the truck before they saw it. The convulsive roar of its diesel engine was a violent intrusion on the otherwise still morning. It was impossible to ignore. The Italian security men paused in mid-conversation and looked up, as did the group of fourteen strangers gathered outside the entrance of the embassy. The tubby Jesuit, who was waiting for a bus at the opposite end of the street, lifted his round head from his copy of L’Osservatore Romano and searched for the source of the commotion.
The gentle slope of the street helped the truck gather speed at an astonishing rate. As it rounded the bend, the massive load in its cargo container pushed the truck heavily onto two wheels. For an instant it seemed it might topple. Then somehow it righted itself and began the final straight-line plunge toward the compound.
The driver was briefly visible through the windshield. He was young and clean-shaven. His eyes were wide, his mouth agape. He seemed to be standing atop the gas pedal, and he seemed to be shouting at himself. For some reason the wipers were on.
The Italian security forces reacted immediately. Several took cover behind the reinforced concrete barriers. Others dived for the protection of the steel-and-glass guard posts. Two officers could be seen pouring automatic fire toward the marauding truck. Sparks exploded on the grille, and the windshield shattered, but the truck continued unhindered, gathering speed until the point of impact. Afterward, the government of Israel would commend the heroism shown by the Italian security services that morning. It would be noted that none fled their positions, though if they had, their fate would have been precisely the same.
The explosion could be heard from St. Peter’s Square to the Piazza di Spagna to the Janiculum Hill. Those on the upper floors of buildings were treated to the remarkable sight of a red-and-orange fireball rising over the northern end of the Villa Borghese, followed quickly by a pitch-black mushroom cloud of smoke. Windows a mile from the blast point were shattered by the thunderclap of the shock wave, including the stained-glass windows in a nearby church. Plane trees were stripped of their leaves. Birds died in mid-flight. Geologists at a seismic monitoring station first feared that Rome had been shaken by a moderate earthquake.
None of the Italian security men survived the initial blast. Nor did any of the fourteen visitors waiting to be admitted to the mission, or the embassy personnel who happened to be working in offices closest to the spot where the truck exploded.
Ultimately, though, it was the second vehicle that inflicted the most loss of life. The Vatican courier, who had been knocked to the ground by the force of the blast, saw the car turn into the cul-de-sac at high speed. Because it was a Lancia sedan, and because it was carrying four men and traveling at a high rate of speed, he assumed it was a police vehicle responding to the bombing. The priest got to his feet and started toward the scene through the dense black smoke, hoping to be of assistance to the wounded and the dead alike. Instead he saw a scene from a nightmare. The doors of the Lancia opened simultaneously, and the four men he assumed to be police officers began firing into the compound. Survivors who staggered from the burning wreckage of the embassy were mercilessly cut down.
The four gunmen ceased firing at precisely the same time, then clambered back into the Lancia. As they sped away from the burning compound, one of the terrorists aimed his automatic weapon at the Jesuit. The priest made the sign of the cross and prepared himself to die. The terrorist just smiled and disappeared behind a curtain of smoke.
FIFTEEN MINUTES AFTER THE LAST SHOT WAS FIRED in Rome, the secure telephone rang in the large, honey-colored villa overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Ari Shamron, the twice former director-general of the Israeli secret service, now special adviser to the prime minister on all matters dealing with security and intelligence, took the call in his study. He listened in silence for a moment, his eyes closed tightly in anger. “I’m on my way,” he said, and hung up the phone.
Turning around, he saw Gilah standing in the doorway of the study. She was holding his leather bomber jacket in her hand, and her eyes were damp with tears.
“It just came on the television. How bad?”
“Very bad. The prime minister wants me to help him prepare a statement to the country.”
“Then you shouldn’t keep the prime minister waiting.”
She helped Shamron into his jacket and kissed his cheek. There was simple ritual in this act. How many times had he separated from his wife after hearing that Jews had been killed by a bomb? He had lost count long ago. He had resigned himself, late in life, that it would never end.
“You won’t smoke too many cigarettes?”
“Of course not.”
“Try to call me.”
“I’ll call when I can.”
He stepped out the front door. A blast of cold wet wind greeted him. A storm had stolen down from the Golan during the night and laid siege to the whole of the Upper Galilee. Shamron had been awakened by the first crack of thunder, which he had mistaken for a gunshot, and had lain awake for the rest of the night. For Shamron, sleep was like contraband. It came to him rarely and, once interrupted, never twice in the same night. Usually he found himself wandering the secure file rooms of his memory, reliving old cases, walking old battlefields and confronting enemies vanquished long ago. Last night had been different. He’d had a premonition of imminent disaster, an image so clear that he’d actually placed a call to the night desk of his old service to see if anything had happened. “Go back to sleep, Boss,” the youthful duty officer had said. “Everything’s fine.”
His black Peugeot, armored and bulletproof, waited at the top of the drive. Rami, the dark-haired head of his security detachment, stood next to the open rear door. Shamron had made many enemies over the years, and because of the tangled demographics of Israel, many lived uncomfortably close to Tiberias. Rami, quiet as a lone wolf and far more lethal, rarely left his master’s side.
Shamron paused for a moment to light a cigarette, a vile Turkish brand he’d been smoking since the Mandate days, then stepped off the veranda. He was short of stature, yet even in old age, powerful in build. His hands were leathery and liver-spotted and seemed to have been borrowed from a man twice his size. His face, full of cracks and fissures, looked like an aerial view of the Negev Desert. His remaining fringe of steel-gray hair was cropped so short as to be nearly invisible. Infamously hard on his eyeglasses, he had resigned himself to ugly frames of indestructible plastic. The thick lenses magnified blue eyes that were no longer clear. He walked as though anticipating an assault from behind, with his head down and his elbows out defensively. Within the corridors of King Saul Boulevard, the headquarters of his old service, the walk was known as “the Shamron shuffle.” He knew of the epithet and he approved.
He ducked into the backseat of the Peugeot. The heavy car lurched forward and headed down the treacherously steep drive to the lakeshore. It turned right and sped toward Tiberias, then west, across the Galilee toward the Coastal Plain. Shamron’s gaze, for much of the journey, was focused on the scratched face of his wristwatch. Time was now his enemy. With each passing minute the perpetrators were slipping farther and farther away from the scene of the crime. Had they attempted an attack such as this in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, they would have been snared in a web of checkpoints and roadblocks. But it had occurred in Italy, not Israel, and Shamron was at the mercy of the Italian police. It had been a long time since the Italians had dealt with a major act of terrorism. What’s more, Israel’s link to the Italian government—its embassy—was in ruins. So, too, Shamron suspected, was a very important station of the Israeli secret service. Rome was the regional headquarters for southern Europe. It was led by a katsa named Shimon Pazner, a man whom Shamron had personally recruited and trained. It was quite possible the Office had just lost one of its most competent and experienced officers.
The journey seemed to last an eternity. They listened to the news on Israel Radio, and with each update the situation in Rome seemed to grow worse. Three times, Shamron anxiously reached for his secure cellular phone and three times he snapped it back into its cradle without dialing a number. Leave them to it, he thought. They know what they’re doing. Because of you, they’re well-trained. Besides, it was no time for the special adviser to the prime minister on matters of security and terrorism to be weighing in with helpful suggestions.
Special Adviser . . . How he loathed the title. It stank of ambiguity. He had been the Memuneh: the one in charge. He had seen his blessed service, and his country, through triumph and adversity. Lev and his band of young technocrats had regarded him as a liability and had banished him to the Judean wilderness of retirement. He would have remained there were it not for the lifeline thrown to him by the prime minister. Shamron, master manipulator and puppeteer, had learned that he could exercise nearly as much power from the prime minister’s office as he could from the executive suite of King Saul Boulevard. Experience had taught him to be patient. Eventually it would end up in his lap. It always seemed to.
They began the ascent toward Jerusalem. Shamron could not make this remarkable drive without thinking of old battles. The premonition came to him again. Was it Rome he had seen the night before or something else? Something bigger than even Rome? An old enemy, he was sure of it. A dead man, risen from his past.
THE OFFICE OF the Israeli prime minister is located at 3 Kaplan Street, in the Kiryat Ben-Gurion section of West Jerusalem. Shamron entered the building through the underground parking garage, then went up to his office. It was small but strategically located on the hallway that led to the prime minister’s, which allowed him to see when Lev, or any of the other intelligence and security chiefs, were making their way into the inner sanctum for a meeting. He had no personal secretary, but shared a girl named Tamara with three other members of the security staff. She brought him coffee and switched on the bank of three televisions.
“Varash is scheduled to meet in the prime minister’s office at five o’clock.”
Varash was the Hebrew-language acronym for the Committee of the Heads of the Services. It included the director-general of Shabak, the internal security service; the commander of Aman, military intelligence; and, of course, the chief of Israel’s secret intelligence service, which was referred to only as “the Office.” Shamron, by charter and reputation, had a permanent seat at the table.
“In the meantime,” Tamara said, “he wants a briefing in twenty minutes.”
“Tell him a half hour would be better.”
“If you want a half hour, you tell him.”
Shamron sat down at his desk and, remote in hand, spent the next five minutes scanning the world’s television media for as many overt details as he could. Then he picked up the telephone and made three calls, one to an old contact at the Italian Embassy named Tommaso Naldi; the second to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, located a short distance away on Yitzhak Rabin Boulevard; and the third to Office headquarters on King Saul Boulevard.
“He can’t talk to you now,” said Lev’s secretary. Shamron had anticipated her reaction. It was easier to get through an army checkpoint than Lev’s secretary.
“Put him on the phone,” Shamron said, “or the next call will be from the prime minister.”
Lev kept Shamron waiting five minutes.
“What do you know?” Shamron asked.
“The truth? Nothing.”
“Do we have a Rome station any longer?”
“Not to speak of,” said Lev, “but we do have a Rome katsa. Pazner was in Naples on business. He just checked in. He’s on his way back to Rome now.”
Thank God, thought Shamron. “And the others?”
“It’s hard to tell. As you might imagine, the situation is rather chaotic.” Lev had a grating passion for understatement. “Two clerks are missing, along with the communications officer.”
“Is there anything in the files that might be compromising or embarrassing?”
“The best we can hope for is that they went up in smoke.”
“They’re stored in cabinets built to withstand a missile strike. We’d better get to them before the Italians do.”
Tamara poked her head inside the door. “He wants you. Now.”
“I’ll see you at five o’clock,” Shamron said to Lev, and rang off.
He collected his notes, then followed Tamara along the corridor toward the prime minister’s office. Two members of his Shabak protective detail, large boys with short-cropped hair and shirts hanging outside their trousers, watched Shamron’s approach. One of them stepped aside and opened the door. Shamron slipped past and went inside.
The shades were drawn, the room cool and in semidarkness. The prime minister was seated behind his large desk, dwarfed by a towering portrait of the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl that hung on the wall at his back. Shamron had been in this room many times, yet it never failed to quicken his pulse. For Shamron this chamber represented the end of a remarkable journey, the reconstitution of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Birth and death, war and Holocaust—Shamron, like the prime minister, had played a leading role in the entire epic. Privately, they regarded it as their State, their creation, and they guarded it jealously against all those—Arab, Jewish, or Gentile—who sought to weaken or destroy it.
The prime minister, without a word, nodded for Shamron to sit. Small at the head and very wide at the waist, he looked rather like a formation of volcanic rock. His stubby hands lay folded on the desktop; his heavy jowls hung over his shirt collar.
“How bad, Ari?”
“By the end of the day, we’ll have a clearer picture,” Shamron said. “I can say one thing for certain. This will go down as one of the worst acts of terrorism ever committed against the State, if not the worst.”
“How many dead?”
“Officially, they’re still listed as unaccounted for.”
“It’s believed they’re dead.”
“Both?” Shamron nodded. “And their deputies.”
“How many dead for certain?”
“The Italians report twelve police and security personnel dead. At the moment, the Foreign Ministry is confirming twenty-two personnel killed, along with thirteen family members from the residence complex. Eighteen people remain unaccounted for.”
“At least. Apparently there were several visitors standing at the entrance waiting to be admitted to the building.”
“What about the Office station?”
Shamron repeated what he’d just learned from Lev. Pazner was alive. Three Office employees were feared to be among the dead.
“Who did it?”
“Lev hasn’t reached any—”
“I’m not asking Lev.”
“The list of potential suspects, unfortunately, is long. Anything I might say now would be speculation, and at this point, speculation does us no good.”
“Hard to say,” Shamron said. “Perhaps it was just a target of opportunity. Maybe they saw a weakness, a chink in our armor, and they decided to exploit it.”
“But you don’t believe that?”
“No, Prime Minister.”
“Could it have something to do with that affair at the Vatican a couple of years ago—that business with Allon?”
“I doubt it. All the evidence thus far suggests it was a suicide attack carried out by Arab terrorists.”
“I want to make a statement after Varash meets.”
“I think that would be wise.”
“And I want you to write it for me.”
“If you wish.”
“You know about loss, Ari. We both do. Put some heart into it. Tap that reservoir of Polish pain you’re always carrying around with you. The country will need to cry tonight. Let them cry. But assure them that the animals who did this will be punished.”
“They will, Prime Minister.”
“Who did this, Ari?”
“We’ll know soon enough.”
“I want his head,” the prime minister said savagely. “I want his head on a stick.”
“And you shall have it.”
FORTY-EIGHT HOURS would pass before the first break in the case, and it would come not in Rome but in the northern industrial city of Milan. Units of the Polizia di Stato and Carabinieri, acting on a tip from a Tunisian immigrant informant, raided a pensione in a workers’ quarter north of the city center where two of the four surviving attackers were thought to be hiding. The men were no longer there, and based on the condition of the room, they had fled in a hurry. Police discovered a pair of suitcases filled with clothing and a half-dozen cellular telephones, along with false passports and stolen credit cards. The most intriguing item, however, was a compact disk sewn into the lining of one of the bags. Italian investigators at the national crime laboratory in Rome determined that the disk contained data but were unable to penetrate its sophisticated security firewall. Eventually, after much internal debate, it was decided to approach the Israelis for help.
And so it was that Shimon Pazner received his summons to the headquarters of the Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Democratica, Italy’s Intelligence and Democratic Security Service. He arrived a few minutes after ten in the evening and was shown immediately into the office of the deputy chief, a man named Martino Bellano. They were a mismatched pair: Bellano, tall and lean and dressed as though he had just stepped off the pages of an Italian fashion magazine; Pazner, short and muscular with hair like steel wool and a crumpled sports jacket. “A pile of yesterday’s laundry” is how Bellano would describe Pazner after the encounter, and in the aftermath of the affair, when it became clear that Pazner had behaved less than forthrightly, Bellano routinely referred to the Israeli as “that kosher shylock in a borrowed blazer.”
On that first evening, however, Bellano could not have been more solicitous of his visitor. Pazner was not the type to elicit sympathy from strangers, but as he was shown into Bellano’s office, his eyes were heavy with exhaustion and a profound case of survivor’s guilt. Bellano spent several moments expressing his “profound grief” over the bombing before getting round to the reason for Pazner’s late-night summons: the computer disk. He placed it ceremoniously on the desktop and slid it toward Pazner with the tip of a manicured forefinger. Pazner accepted it calmly, though later he would confess to Shamron that his heart was beating a chaotic rhythm against his breastbone.
“We’ve been unable to pick the lock,” Bellano said. “Perhaps you’ll have a bit more luck.”
“We’ll do our best,” replied Pazner modestly.
“Of course, you’ll share with us any material you happen to find.”
“It goes without saying,” said Pazner as the disk disappeared into his coat pocket.
Another ten minutes would elapse before Bellano saw fit to conclude the meeting. Pazner remained stoically in his seat, gripping the arms of his chair like a man in the throes of a nicotine fit. Those who witnessed his departure down the grandiose main corridor took note of his unhurried pace. Only when he was outside, descending the front steps, was there any hint of urgency in his stride.
Within hours of the attack, a team of Israeli bomb specialists, regrettably well-experienced in their trade, had arrived in Rome to begin the task of sifting the wreckage for evidence of the bomb’s composition and origin. As luck would have it, the military charter that had borne them from Tel Aviv was still on the apron at Fiumicino. Pazner, with Shamron’s approval, commandeered the plane to take him back to Tel Aviv. He arrived a few minutes after sunrise and walked directly into the arms of an Office greeting party. They headed immediately to King Saul Boulevard, driving at great haste but with no recklessness, for the cargo was too precious to risk on that most dangerous element of Israeli life: its roadways. By eight that morning, the computer disk was the target of a coordinated assault by the best minds of the service’s Technical division, and by nine the security barriers had been successfully breached. Ari Shamron would later boast that the Office computer geniuses cracked the code in the span of an average Italian coffee break. Decryption of the material took another hour, and by ten a printout of the disk’s contents was sitting on Lev’s immaculate desk. The material remained there for only a few moments, because Lev immediately tossed it into a secure briefcase and headed to Kaplan Street in Jerusalem to brief the prime minister. Shamron, of course, was at his master’s side.
“Someone needs to bring him in,” said Lev. He spoke with the enthusiasm of a man offering his own eulogy. Perhaps, thought Shamron, that was precisely how he felt, for he viewed the man in question as a rival, and Lev’s preferred method of dealing with rivals, real or potential, was exile. “Pazner is heading back to Italy tonight. Let him take along a team from Extraction.”
Shamron shook his head. “He’s mine. I’ll bring him home.” He paused. “Besides, Pazner has something more important to do at the moment.”
“Telling the Italians we couldn’t break the lock on that disk, of course.”
Lev made a habit of never being the first to leave the room, and so it was with great reluctance that he uncoiled himself from his chair and moved toward the exit. Shamron looked up and saw that the prime minister’s eyes were on him.
“He’ll have to stay here until this blows over,” the prime minister said.
“Yes, he will,” agreed Shamron.
“Perhaps we should find something for him to do to help pass the time.”
Shamron nodded once, and it was done.
Q. You described your previous three books as "an accidental trilogy dealing with the unfinished business of the Holocaust." Could Prince of Fire be the beginning of another "accidental" series?
When it comes to something as unpredictable as writing novels, it's generally a mistake to make predictions, but, no, I don't see this as the beginning of a new cycle of novels. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. This novel is something of a conclusion to the series. When I introduced the Gabriel Allon character in The Kill Artist, he was cast in the unlikely role of safeguarding the life of Yasir Arafat, who was then engaged in the Oslo peace process. Of course, everything changed shortly after that novel was published. Yasir Arafat rejected the peace deal he was offered at Camp David and then launched the second Intifada. In a way, I felt obligated to write this novel. The Kill Artist was written in a time of hope, Prince of Fire in a time of despair and terror, and I think that's reflected in the tone of some of the book's more memorable passages.
Q. Prince of Fire offers a virtual history lesson on the Arab-Israeli conflict during the entire twentieth century. How did you develop an interest in this part of the world?
I've always been captivated by the history of Zionism and the conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine—the notion that history and Providence has thrown these two remarkable peoples together in this tiny slice of land and bound them in bloodshed. As a writer of fiction, there is a deep well from which to draw: fascinating characters, a compelling and violent history, and a starkly beautiful physical landscape. And, of course, it is a conflict that affects us all. I tried very hard to do justice to both sides and to capture, in microcosm, the pain felt by both Arabs and Jews. At its core, the book is a thriller, not a history lesson, but I was careful to include enough history so that situation can be understood and placed in context. It's amazing how little many people really know about the history of the conflict.
Q. In Prince of Fire the action moves across continents, from Rome, Venice, and Cairo, to London, Paris and Jerusalem. Whether the setting is verdant Celtic ruins in Provence or the tan hills of Galilee, each location is vividly rendered. What kind of research did you do to capture each one so precisely?
There's really no substitute for going to a place and seeing it with your own eyes—looking at a landscape and imagining your characters moving across it. The research for this book took me from Israel to Paris to the south of France. A significant portion is set in Marseilles. It had been some time since I'd been there. In fact, the last time was before the attacks of September 11. It was interesting to look at a place like Marseilles and imagine it as a hub of terrorist activity. In all honesty, it wasn't too difficult.
Q. In the thriller's opening scenes, a massive terrorist bombing sparks an international manhunt for an elusive Arab terrorist. Was this an unconscious or a deliberate response to the September 11th attacks in the U.S.?
For a long time after the attacks of September 11, I felt reluctant to touch the subject of terrorism. For me, like most Americans, the attacks were a watershed event, a tear in the fabric of human history. I still don't think I'll ever write a book about a terrorist plot against America, but I finally felt capable of writing about terrorism in the Israeli context.
Q. The terrorist mastermind in your book is a man named Khaled al-Khalifa. He is the son of the leader of Black September, the notorious Palestinian terror group of the 1970s that carried out the Munich Olympics massacre. Why did you choose to resurrect Black September for this novel?
As I say in the author's note of the novel, the story of Prince of Fire was really inspired by a photograph taken at the funeral of Ali Hassan Salemeh, the operations chief of Black September. The photograph shows Salemeh's young son seated on the lap of a grieving Yasir Arafat. It made me think: What if the boy had been hidden away by Arafat and trained to carry on the tradition of his father? As for my interest in Black September, it began with the Munich Olympics massacre. Like millions of other people around the world, I watched the drama unfold from beginning to end, and the murder of the hostages hit me very hard. Although we didn't realize it then, the Munich Massacre was in many ways the beginning of the modern terrorist age. I believe Black September and the Palestinians must share some of the blame for the events of September 11. Remember, it was Black September that first demonstrated the utility of carrying out spectacular acts of terrorism on the international stage. I'm quite confident that the planners of Al Qaeda have studied their exploits carefully.
Q. Your protagonist, Gabriel Allon, is a gifted art restorer when he's not involved in international espionage. The meticulous description of his work suggests that you also have a great appreciation for the Grand Masters. Is painting or art history a passion of yours?
It is, and I've been able to indulge that passion with this series. I'm also fortunate enough to have wonderful and generous friends who know much more about art than I do.
Q. Fidelity and loyalty are prominent themes in your hero's relationships with his estranged wife, his lover, and his boss in the Israeli Secret Service, as well as in his adversaries' relationships. Do these issues have special significance for you?
Something happened inside Israel when the Palestinian terrorists started setting off bombs on buses, in cafés and even during a Passover Seder. Israelis set aside their differences and demanded an end to the violence. A certain tribalism took hold, in my opinion, and Gabriel Allon was not immune to that. His name is significant. The archangel Gabriel is the defender of Israel, the angel of vengeance, and the prince of fire. In a time of terror and bloodshed, Gabriel has no choice but to pick up his gun once again in service of his country and his people. He does so with a certain reluctance, because he fears he is a soldier in a war without end, but he does so all the same, out of loyalty and fidelity.
Q. Your characters offer strong opinions on hot-button issues such as Israel's Separation Fence. Do you find yourself taking sides as you write?
At the risk of sounding as though I'm dodging the question, I have sympathy for both parties to the conflict. I believe that Jews have a right to a homeland. I also believe that Palestinians suffered terribly as a result of the birth of Israel and that they deserve a state of their own. That said, I have to say that I am profoundly disappointed, to put it mildly, in the way the Palestinian side conducted itself after the signing of the Oslo peace accords. I was a supporter of the Oslo Agreement, even though I had doubts about the ability of the two sides to reach a final accord. I believed that Arafat had truly reconciled himself to the existence of a Jewish State in the Middle East and was committed to peace. That turned out to be wrong. Arafat, I'm convinced, viewed the Oslo process as part of his “phased strategy” to bring about the destruction of the Jewish State. He said so many times, in Arabic, when he was speaking to his own people. I also believe he ended his career as he began it: as a terrorist. With his passing, there might be a chance for peace, but I tend to doubt it. Arafat left behind a mess, but then, he always did—in Lebanon and before that in Jordan. Still, one has to hope. The alternative is too awful to contemplate: Arabs and Jews, killing each other in the Promised Land, until the end of time.
Q. Your popular protagonist, Gabriel Allon, is a melancholy man haunted by his past, or as you describe him, "the eternal wandering Jew." Is the character based on anyone you've actually known?
Thankfully, no. Gabriel Allon is truly a fictitious character.
Q. Allon has a tense face-to-face conversation with Arafat. How did you prepare to write that scene? Did Arafat's death affect what you wrote?
Arafat died as I was finishing the novel, and I chose not to incorporate his death into the story. As for the preparation, I've come to know both of these men very well. It was really a matter of putting them in a room together, along with their terrible history, and letting them show me the way.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: