The Rembrandt Affair

Behind the Series

In 2000, after publishing The Marching Season, the second book in the Michael Osbourne series, I decided it was time for a change. We were nearing the end of the Clinton administration, and the president was about to embark on a final, last-ditch effort to bring peace to the Middle East. I had the broad outlines of a story in mind. It was the story of a hard-line Palestinian terrorist who wanted to torpedo the peace process by carrying out a wave of high-profile attacks in Europe and America. And it was the story of an Israeli assassin and intelligence officer who would be given the assignment of stopping him. The Palestinian would be called Tariq al-Hourani. The Israeli, as yet, had no name, and I thought long and hard before giving him one. I wanted it to be biblical, like my own. I finally decided to name him after the archangel Gabriel. It is a beautiful name, and it is filled with much religious and historical symbolism. Gabriel is the mightiest of God’s angels and His most important messenger. He is the prince of fire and the guardian of Israel. And, perhaps most important, Gabriel is the angel of revenge. I decided that Gabriel’s last name should short, simple, and somewhat neutral: Allon. In Hebrew, it means “oak tree.” I liked the image it conveyed, for Gabriel Allon was definitely solid as an oak.

Unlike the archangel Gabriel, who is said to reside at the right hand of God, Gabriel Allon the man was born in a small, dusty agricultural town in the Jezreel Valley of Israel. His parents were German Holocaust survivors and spoke German at home. As a result, young Gabriel’s first language was German rather than Hebrew, and German remains the language of his dreams to this day. We know little about Gabriel’s father, other than the fact that he was killed during the Six-Day War in 1967. His mother, Irene, was the far more dominant force in his life. The daughter of Viktor Frankel, a well-known German expressionist painter who was murdered at Auschwitz in 1942, she was one of the most important painters in the young State of Israel. Gabriel inherited his mother’s artistic talent and, after completing his mandatory service in the Israeli army, entered the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, Israel’s national school of art. He was studying there in September 1972, when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and murdered eleven Israeli athletes and coaches at the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. A week after the massacre, a man came to Bezalel to see Gabriel. He was a small, wiry figure with hands that looked as though they had been borrowed from someone twice his size and teeth that looked like a steel trap. His name was Ari Shamron, and he was about to forever change the course of young Gabriel’s life.

Ari Shamron was a legendary operative in the Israeli secret service whose exploits included the 1960 capture of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution. On that day in September 1972, he had just been given a new assignment by Prime Minister Golda Meir: to hunt down and kill the Black September terrorists responsible for the massacre in Munich, many of whom were living openly in Europe. To carry out that task, he needed a young man who could move around the continent without attracting unwanted attention. He needed a young man who could speak a European language and who had the emotional coldness necessary to kill many men at close quarters. He chose the child of Holocaust survivors who still spoke German in his dreams. After undergoing a month of intense training, Gabriel was sent to Rome, where he killed a man named Wadal Abdel Zwaiter, Black September’s chief of operations in Italy. Over the next three years, Gabriel would kill five more terrorists, all at close range with a .22 caliber Beretta.

In 1975, when returned to Israel at the end of the mission, his appearance had changed dramatically. He looked much older than his twenty-five years and his hair had gone to gray at his temples—“smudges of ash on the prince of fire,” as Shamron liked to say. Haunted by the faces of the men whom he had killed, Gabriel found he could no longer paint. With Shamron’s help, he settled in Venice under an assumed identity and served an apprenticeship with master art restorer Umberto Conti. For the next fifteen years, he lived exclusively in Europe, restoring paintings under the name Mario Delvecchio and carrying out assassinations for the State of Israel. In 1991, at the beginning of the first Gulf War, he was tracking the movements of a terrorist in Vienna when a concealed bomb exploded in his car, killing his young son and grievously wounding his wife, Leah. The terrorist who carried out the attack was named Tariq al-Hourani, the man whom Gabriel would be assigned to kill nine years later.

The story of that assignment is told in The Kill Artist, which was supposed to be the first and only Gabriel Allon novel. I never liked the title. In fact, I loath it to this day. It was forced on me by an editor I otherwise adored because he didn’t like the title I had placed on the manuscript, which was Prince of Fire. Despite the title, the book was an instant New York Times bestseller. When I moved to Putnam in 2001, the legendary publisher Phyllis Grann suggested that I turn Gabriel into a continuing character. I thought it was a terrible idea, and I told her so. I felt there was too much anti-Semitism in the world, and far too much hatred of Israel, to make a continuing Israeli character palatable to a mass audience. She told me I was wrong and ordered me to get to work on the follow-up. It was called The English Assassin, and it sold nearly twice as many copies as The Kill Artist. The next book, The Confessor, sold even more. In fact, each of the novels as sold more than its predecessor. For the record, Phyllis Grann was right, and I was wrong.

I am asked often whether it is necessary to read the novels in order. The answer is no, but it probably doesn’t hurt. For the record, the order of publication is as follows: The Kill ArtistThe English AssassinThe ConfessorA Death in ViennaPrince of FireThe MessengerThe Secret Servant, and Moscow Rules. The stories follow a familiar pattern fans of the series have come to expect: Gabriel is drawn out of retirement or seclusion, usually by a murder or some other act of violence, and soon finds himself at the center of a fast-paced, swirling international adventure. Several memorable sub-characters appear throughout the series: Eli Lavon, the surveillance artist and Gabriel’s old friend from the Black September operation; Uzi Navot, the chief of the Special Operations directorate who forever toils in Gabriel’s shadow; Julian Isherwood, the London art dealer and volunteer helper of Israeli intelligence who provides legitimate work for Gabriel’s cover; Adrian Carter, the deputy director of the CIA; and, of course, Ari Shamron, the legendary former chief of Israeli intelligence who refuses to allow Gabriel to live in peace.

The series contains two internal trilogies. The first consists of The English AssassinThe Confessor, and A Death in Vienna and explores what I call “the unfinished business of the Holocaust.” The English Assassin deals with Nazi art looting and the actions of Switzerland during the Second World War. The Confessor wrestles with the role of the Roman Catholic Church during the Holocaust and the actions, or lack thereof, of Pope Pius XII. A Death in Vienna tells the story of Gabriel’s quest to bring justice to a Nazi war criminal, a man whom his mother encountered during the Death March from Auschwitz in January 1945. It remains my favorite.

The second internal trilogy consists of Prince of FireThe Messenger, and The Secret Servant and deals with the question of terrorism in the modern world. Prince of Fire explores the roots of Palestinian terrorism through a story of revenge, The Messenger takes a hard look at the role Saudi Arabia played in creating al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and The Secret Servant surveys the rise of militant Islam in Europe.

Moscow Rules, the eighth book in the series, finds Gabriel on assignment in the New Russia. He has changed much since we first met him. He is a bit older, much wiser, and his cover has been blown many times over. He is a friend of both the American president and the Pope, and moves at the highest levels of Western intelligence in London and Washington. He has returned to Europe and resides now on a secluded estate in Umbria, where he restores paintings in secret for the Vatican Picture Gallery. After many years of dithering, he has finally come to his senses and married Chiara Zolli, a beautiful Venetian Jew whom he first met during the course of The Confessor. Like Gabriel, Chiara works as an undercover operative for Israeli intelligence. She is interested in starting a family. Gabriel, who lost one family to his enemies, is not at all sure he’s capable of having another.

As for his first wife, Leah, she resides now in a psychiatric hospital on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, locked in a prison of memory. From her favorite spot in the hospital’s garden, she can see across Jerusalem to the spot on the Mount of Olives, where her only son is buried. Gabriel’s encounters with Leah are some of the most touching and memorable scenes in the series. They are also highly symbolic. Scarred by fire, Leah resembles a canvas that has suffered significant paint losses. She is the one thing Gabriel cannot restore. She is the price he has paid for a life spent battling the forces of evil—a life that began one day in September 1972, when a man named Ari Shamron came to the Bezalel Academy of Fine Art and Design and asked a gifted young painter to lay down his brushes and pick up a gun instead.


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