Q: You’ve been called the finest writer of international thrillers of your generation and one of the greatest American spy novelists of all time. But after reading The Fallen Angel, I think it’s safe to say you’ve outdone yourself. This novel has something for everyone. Murder at the Vatican, looted antiquities, tomb raiders, and terrorism. Have I left anything out?
A: A conspiracy that could plunge the world into a conflict of apocalyptic proportions.
Q: Let’s start with your hero, Gabriel Allon. He’s been described as the most compelling creation since “Ian Fleming put down his martini and invented James Bond.” And he’s getting more popular with each book. How do you explain Gabriel’s appeal?
A: I think it has everything to do with the two very different and distinct halves of Gabriel’s character. As readers of the series know, Gabriel has had a long, on-again-off-again relationship with Israel’s secret intelligence service, but he also happens to be one of the world’s finest restorers of Old Master paintings. And the stories reflect that. Most of the entries in the Allon series are a blend of art and intelligence. And that makes them unique.
Q: Another hallmark of the series is the marvelous cast of supporting characters. One of your most beloved recurring characters, Monsignor Luigi Donati, plays an important role in The Fallen Angel. Tells us a little about him.
A: Luigi Donati is the private secretary to Pope Paul VII, a fictitious pontiff who appeared for the first time in a novel I published in 2003 called The Confessor. Donati has always been one of my favorite characters—so much so that I use him every chance I can. He’s brilliant, tough, incredibly handsome, and, like Gabriel Allon, he prefers to do most of his important work in secret. The two men formed a close bond as a result of the events that occurred in The Confessor, and they’ve grown closer as the series has progressed.
Q: At the beginning of The Fallen Angel, Monsignor Donati has a problem. The body of a beautiful woman has been discovered in St. Peter’s Basilica, the victim of what appears to be a suicide. But Donati suspects the woman was murdered, so he asks Gabriel to quietly investigate. What made you decide to start the book in such dramatic fashion inside St. Peter’s?
A: Because it’s truly one of my favorite places in the world. It’s overwhelming in every way—so vast, and so beautiful. We think we’re very clever and advanced today with our smart phones and digital technology, but Michelangelo, Bernini and the other great artists who created the Basilica left us something that can truly take one’s breath away. At the same time, though, there’s something almost terrifying about the scale and beauty of the Basilica. And there are reminders of death everywhere, from the Pietà to the crypts. I simply couldn’t resist.
Q: The dead woman was Claudia Andreatti, a curator from the Vatican Museums, and the plot of The Fallen Angel deals with the international trade in looted antiquities. What drew you to the subject?
A: For a start, there’s an amazing cast of characters involved in the trade: tomb raiders, museum curators, collectors, dealers, smugglers, and mobsters. And then there are the crusading government officials from countries such as Greece, Italy, Egypt, and the Turkey who are using every means at their disposal to try to protect—and in some cases recover—the symbols of their cultural heritage. But what really intrigued me was the fact that all these beautiful objects were produced by great civilizations that no longer exist. Antiquities should remind us of our own cultural mortality. I think many people believe that things will always be as they are now. But the current turbulence in Western Europe and the Middle East demonstrate that, despite all our efforts, history does not end. The Euro zone is in crisis, America appears in decline, and old empires are like the Chinese, the Turks, and the Persians have reawakened. Who knows? It’s possible that within a few hundred years there won’t be a United States of America—at least not one that many of us would recognize.
Q: Will collectors ever pay millions of dollars for our antiquities?
A: How much to you think an iPod will be worth a thousand years from now? I suspect it will be worth substantially less than a red-figure Greek vase.
Q: How extensive is the trade in illicit antiquities?
A: It’s hard to quantify, in part because it’s so vast. It is a truly global enterprise that stretches from South America, to southern Europe, to the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. And by all accounts, the laws that were put in place to prevent the looting of our past don’t seem to have done much good. Most experts agree that crime has grown worse in the last few years. As for the monetary value of the trade, the estimates range from a few hundred million dollars a year to several billion.
Q: So it’s big business.
A: Very big. And quite sophisticated.
Q: You refer to something called cultural patrimony. What is it exactly?
A: Cultural patrimony refers to objects that have continuing historical and traditional importance to a people or a nation. The Italians are descendants of the Romans and Etruscans and, therefore, they rightly regard Roman and Etruscan artifacts as part of their cultural patrimony, meaning it belongs to them. For the Greeks, the Parthenon is a powerful symbol of a glorious past. For the Egyptians, it’s the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the wondrous objects that filled Egyptian tombs. But I think there’s also a somewhat darker side to the debate over cultural patrimony. The Turkish government, for example, is going to great lengths to reclaim the symbols of their past, in part because the neo-Ottomans in Istanbul want to remind Turks that they were great once and they can be great again.
Q: Did your research lead you to come down on one side or the other of the debate?
A: Actually, it left me somewhat ambivalent. While I’m deeply sympathetic to countries that want to protect their heritage from tomb robbers and smugglers, I think it’s possible the pendulum may have swung too far. Don’t get me wrong: I am in no way suggesting we should return to the rapacious collecting of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when European powers plundered the ancient world of its treasures. But I do think Western museums have, by and large, been good caretakers of antiquities and should be allowed to acquire items responsibly. Has the Louvre not treated the Venus di Milo and Winged Victory of Samothrace with great care and dignity? Millions of people walk past them each year and for a few moments revel in the wonder of ancient Greece. Would those objects really be better cared for if they were in Athens? Greece is going broke. And what about the treasures of ancient Egypt? Egypt is in political turmoil and may soon be a failed state of ninety million people. How many Western tourists are going to go to Egypt if it becomes an Islamic republic ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood?
Q: In The Fallen Angel, you portray Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group from Lebanon, as involved in the antiquities smuggling. Is that the case?
A: I’m not sure, but what I do know is that, for many years, Hezbollah has been financing its activities, in part with a global crime spree. They’re into everything from cocaine and heroin to pirated DVDs and black-market cigarettes. Their criminal operations have taken on greater importance recently because of the turmoil in Syria and the sanctions that have been leveled against Iran over its nuclear program. Hezbollah’s two patrons are hurting financially right now. As a result, Hezbollah has been forced to rely more on crime to finance all aspects of its operations, from its social programs, to its military wing and, no doubt, its global terrorist cells. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they are also involved in antiquities smuggling. They certainly operate in lands that are rich with valuable artifacts. All the great empires of antiquity swept through what is now Lebanon. And you can be sure Hezbollah finds their share of treasure when they’re digging underground military bunkers.
Q: How serious is the threat of Hezbollah terrorism?
A: I think one of the many shortcomings of the so-called global war on terrorism has been its obsessive focus on al-Qaeda. Yes, it was al-Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11. And, yes, it is al-Qaeda that wants to attack us now. But we would be wise to remember that before al-Qaeda there was Hezbollah. The group has rightly been described as the “A-team of terrorists.” Its list of successful terrorist attacks is long and deadly. In my opinion, it is far more capable now than al-Qaeda ever was. Hezbollah is truly global in its reach, with cells scattered across the Middle East, Asia, South America, and almost certainly here in the United States. But the part the worries me most is Hezbollah’s links to Iran. Whenever Iran needs a little dirty work done, it usually turns to Hezbollah to carry it out. So you can be sure that if we ever feel the need to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Hezbollah will play a major role in the Iranian response. In fact, it’s already targeted Israeli diplomats in several different countries in retaliation for Israel’s attempts to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program.
Q: Without giving too much away of the plot, a portion of The Fallen Angel is set on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Let’s start with something simple. What exactly is the Temple Mount?
A: The Temple Mount is the manmade plateau in the southeastern corner of the Old City. Beneath it is Mount Moriah, the place where, according to Jewish tradition, Abraham brought Isaac to be slain. It was the site of Solomon’s First Temple of Jerusalem and Herod’s Great Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 ad. It’s now the site of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, which were erected shortly after the Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 638. But we should be clear about one thing: Arabs would never dream of referring to it as the Temple Mount. For them, it’s the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, and it’s regarded as the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina.
Q: You seem to suggest that the Temple Mount is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.
A: I’m afraid it is.
Q: Explain the peculiar way the Temple Mount is administered.
A: Peculiar is the right word for it. After the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank, it decided to leave the Temple Mount under the control of the Islamic endowment—it’s known as the Waqf in Arabic—that has administered the site since the time of Saladin. But the Israelis control all the territory around the Mount, and they decide who’s allowed to pray at the shrines. As you might expect, it breeds a great deal of resentment. It’s also a source of incredible tension. On many Fridays, the Israeli police and army prevent young men and boys from entering the Haram as a security precaution. As a result, it’s quite difficult, if not impossible, for non-Muslims to visit the Temple Mount these days. Last summer, while my family and I were in Jerusalem researching The Fallen Angel, we were confronted by a group of Palestinian street toughs in the Muslim Quarter for simply approaching the gates of the Haram. It was an unpleasant encounter, to say the least.
Q: The plot of The Fallen Angel involves something called Temple Denial. What is it?
Temple Denial is a phenomenon that has arisen recently in the Arab and Islamic world that maintains the First and Second Jewish Temples of Jerusalem did not exist—that they are a myth or perhaps they existed somewhere other than the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It surfaced in a significant way at the Camp David Summit in 2000, when President Bill Clinton, in the final months of his presidency, tried to engineer a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. During the talks over how to divide and administer the sacred sites in Jerusalem, Yasir Arafat baldly asserted that there had never been a Jewish Temple and therefore the Jews had no claim on the Mount. Clinton was flabbergasted by the outburst. His chief Middle East negotiator, Dennis Ross, said later that the only new idea Arafat brought to Camp David was the notion that the Temple Mount didn’t exist. But unfortunately, Arafat wasn’t alone. Every Palestinian political leader, including those who are regarded as moderates in the West, now says the Jewish Temples were a myth.
Q: Why do you suppose that’s the case?
A: That’s easy. If there were no Jewish Temple, then the Jews would have no historically rooted claim to a homeland in that small slice of land on the eastern rim of the Mediterranean. It’s intellectual lunacy, but it has a purpose. It’s part of a broader effort by the Arab and Islamic world—and, frankly, anti-Israel elements in the West—to delegitimize the State of Israel and bring about its destruction.
Q: Do you believe the First and Second Jewish Temples existed?
A: Of course. And so does Bill Clinton. At Camp David, he told Arafat that, as a Christian, he believes that beneath the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque are the remains of Solomon’s First Temple of Jerusalem. The best way to determine whether that’s true is to conduct a religiously and politically sensitive excavation of the entire Temple Mount plateau. Given current realities, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. In fact, I think it’s likely that the Temple Mount will play a role in the next major eruption of violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict, just as it did the last. The second intifada was also referred to as the al-Aqsa intifada. And many of the suicide bombings that targeted Israeli civilians were carried out by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
Q: You point out in The Fallen Angel that the Temple Mount plateau, perhaps the most sacred parcel of land on earth, is unstable. How did that happen?
A: As I said earlier, it’s not a natural plateau. It’s rather like a giant sandbox that sits atop the peak of Mount Moriah. And several years ago, when the Waqf decided to construct a massive underground mosque in the southeast corner of the Mount, they inadvertently destabilized the structure. Can you imagine what would happen if the Haram al-Sharif, the third-holiest site in Islam, collapsed? It has the potential to be catastrophic. But there was something else that happened during the construction that was truly outrageous. The Palestinian construction crews worked with heavy earth-moving equipment and rock cutters. Soil and other debris displaced by the work was dumped over the walls into the Kidron Valley or simply taken to a nearby dump. Israeli archaeologists sifted through the material and found numerous artifacts dating back to the time of the Temples.
Q: Your works tend to be prophetic. In The Secret Servant, you forecast the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. And in your last novel, Portrait of a Spy, you seemed to suggest that the Arab Spring would not have a happy ending.
A: Having lived in the Middle East, I certainly understand why the Arab world would want to rise up against their leaders, especially the leaders of the so-called Arab republics like Egypt and Syria. These were secret police states—thugocracies, as I liked to describe them. But now that the old order is in the process of being swept away, the Arabs have to decide how they want to be governed. For now, at least in Egypt, they seem to be choosing Islam. I take issue with those who describe the Muslim Brotherhood as moderate. They share many of the same goals as al-Qaeda! And they are now on the verge of assuming total control of Egypt. In short term, I expect the Middle East to become more Islamic and more populist. And that, I’m afraid, means it’s going to be even more unstable than it already is.
Q: And if anything ever happened to the Temple Mount?
A: Look out.
Q: Speaking of President Bill Clinton, he recently described Gabriel Allon as his favorite fictional character. How did that make you feel?
A: Very proud and very humble.
Q: Why humble?
A: Because Bill Clinton will certainly be remembered as one of the great presidents of the second half of the twentieth century. He also happens to know more about Israel and the history of the Middle East than any leader in the world. So if someone like President Clinton can appreciate a character I created, I must have done something right.
Q: And to think that character was only supposed to appear in one book.
A: It seems hard to imagine now, but, yes, Gabriel Allon was never supposed to be a continuing character. In fact, when I first conceived the book that would eventually be entitled The Kill Artist, Gabriel was of secondary importance to the master terrorist he was pursuing. But as the writing progressed, Gabriel rose to prominence. And in the end, he was the real star of that book.
Q: But as I understand it, you still weren’t convinced that he could be the star of a series.
A: That’s true. I was afraid there was far too much anti-Israeli sentiment in the world—and, honestly, too much anti-Semitism—for an Israeli character to work for a mass-market audience. But fortunately, Phyllis Grann, the great publisher and editor, convinced me I was wrong. The second Gabriel book, The English Assassin, outsold the first, and the trend has continued with each new entry in the series. In fact, my last novel, Portrait of a Spy, far outsold any other book featuring Gabriel Allon.
Q: How long do you intend to continue writing about him?
A: At some point, I would like to write something different—stretch my legs, if you will. But it seems difficult to imagine that I would ever stop writing Gabriel Allon altogether. I love him, faults and all.
Q: Do you have a personal favorite Allon novel?
A: That’s like asking a parent which child he loves the most. I love all the Allon novels. But I suppose that if I were put under oath, I would say A Death in Vienna is probably my favorite.
Q: As always, the settings in The Fallen Angel are impeccably rendered. Do you visit all the places you right about?
A: I really do try to spend as much time in the settings for my novels as possible. As I’ve said before, I like to walk in Gabriel’s footsteps. For this novel, I spent several days in Rome and at the Vatican and then headed to Israel. I was allowed into the restoration laboratory in the Vatican and stood on the spot where Gabriel, in the novel, is restoring The Deposition of Christ by Caravaggio. I was also fortunate enough to spend a few moments in the Sistine Chapel alone. In Jerusalem, we spent much of our time underground, wandering the tunnels beneath the Old City and in the archaeological digs in the City of David. We also chased jackals across the Golan Heights late at night with a wildlife guide. I couldn’t figure out a way to work the jackals into the book.
Q: Do you outline you books first?
A: I wish I could but, frankly, given the limited amount of time I have to produce a book, there really isn’t time. Once I settle on the broad story arc, the characters, and the themes, I start to work. From that point on, I write every day, seven days a week. I find days off incredibly disruptive. The winter holidays are a nightmare for me.
Q: How many hours a day do you work?
A: That depends on how I’m feeling and what time of year it is. In September and October, I try to limit my writing time to about six hours a day. My output increases sharply in November, and after the New Year, with my deadline looming, I become a virtual hermit. I sometimes work twelve or fourteen hours a day.
Q: Without a break?
A: Actually, my office is in the basement, right next to the laundry room. In order to give myself mini-breaks, I fluff and fold. I find doing the laundry very relaxing. When my wife and children come home, a pile of clean clothing awaits each of them. I’m told I’m an excellent folder, though I still struggle with fitted sheets.