Daniel Silva is the #1 New York Times-bestselling author of The Unlikely Spy, The Mark of the Assassin, The Marching Season, The Kill Artist, The English Assassin, The Confessor, A Death in Vienna, Prince of Fire, The Messenger, The Secret Servant, Moscow Rules and The Defector. He is married to NBC News Today correspondent Jamie Gangel. They have two children, Lily and Nicholas. In 2009 Silva was appointed to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Council.
Q. Your last two books were #1 New York Times bestsellers, and once again, you’ve written one of the summer’s hottest thrillers. Tell us a little about your brand–new page–turner, The Rembrandt Affair.
The Rembrandt Affair is my thirteenth novel and the tenth to feature my hero, the enigmatic art restorer and spy Gabriel Allon. What excites me most about the book is that it blends the two vastly different sides of Gabriel’s character—the world of art and the world of intelligence—into a fast–paced and entertaining read. As the story opens, Gabriel has returned to the windswept cliffs of Cornwall, where he is hoping to restore paintings and lead a well–deserved quiet life. But once again, trouble comes calling. In the ancient and mystical English city of Glastonbury, an art restorer is brutally murdered and a long–lost Rembrandt mysteriously stolen. Despite his reluctance, Gabriel agrees to use his unique skills to find the painting. And though he doesn’t realize it, his search will lead him into a confrontation with one of the world’s most dangerous men, a man who will do anything for money.
Q. What attracted you to the topic of art theft?
I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that thieves have made off with some of the most beautiful objects ever created. And for the most part, they get away with it. I think there is a tendency to dismiss art crime as somehow romantic, a sort of gentleman’s game. The truth is, art crime is big business. During my research for The Rembrandt Affair, I learned that between $4 billion and $6 billion dollars’ worth of art and antiquities are stolen each year. According to Interpol, art theft ranks fourth on the list of the most lucrative forms of criminal activity, right after drug trafficking, arms dealing, and money laundering. It is a sad but fascinating reality that if all the paintings ever stolen were gathered into one so–called Museum of the Missing, it would be among the greatest in the world.
Q. Critics have hailed Gabriel Allon as one of the most fascinating characters on the literary landscape today. But he’s not the typical hero, is he?
No, not at all. First of all, there’s the issue of his nationality. He can pass as an Italian or a German, but in reality Gabriel Allon is an Israeli. He started his career for Israeli intelligence when he was very young. In fact, he was still in art school when he was recruited to hunt down and kill the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. But what makes Gabriel unique—and what makes him so attractive to many different kinds of readers—is his cover job. Gabriel is truly one of the finest art restorers in the world. He uses restoration not only as his cover but as a way to heal himself after difficult operations.
Q. Like all your novels, The Rembrandt Affair is a page–turner and entertainment of the highest caliber. But it’s also a searing morality tale about greed. To what extent were you influenced by the financial meltdown and the behavior of some investment bankers on Wall Street?
Like everyone, I was appalled by the greed and reckless pursuit of profit that helped bring about the Great Recession. And, of course, by the case of Bernie Madoff. Here was a charismatic figure who appeared to be a paragon of virtue. Madoff was a man people thought they could trust, a man who donated millions of dollars to charity. But underneath it all, Madoff was a criminal, arguably the greatest thief and con man in history. And as we found out, he wasn’t alone. It turns out there were dozens of Bernie Madoffs out there. And I was intrigued by two questions. What motivates these people? And how do they live with themselves? And that became the inspiration for the villain of The Rembrandt Affair.
Q. You’ve created some wonderful villains over the years. They’re always complex. But the one who appears on the pages of The Rembrandt Affair is unique. He’s a Swiss billionaire named Martin Landesmann, but I understand that both his supporters and detractors have another name for him?
That’s true. They call him Saint Martin, but I’m told he’s not terribly fond of it. Saint Martin is regarded as something of a prophet by his legion of devoted followers. He preaches debt relief, corporate responsibility, and renewable energy. He has a charitable foundation called One World that’s given away hundreds of millions of dollars to causes Saint Martin supposedly holds dear. But, of course, it’s all a sham. Beneath Martin Landesmann’s saintly façade is a secret best summed up by the famous quotation attributed to Honoré de Balzac that serves as the epigraph for the novel: “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.”
Q. As the title of the novel suggests, the painting at the center of the story is a Rembrandt. And not just any Rembrandt. It’s a long–lost masterpiece, and as Gabriel soon discovers, it has a tragic history, one dealing with the Holocaust in Holland. Where did you find the inspiration for the haunting story of the hidden child in The Rembrandt Affair?
Oddly enough, I quite literally stumbled upon it one afternoon at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem. I was doing some research in the archives for my novel A Death in Vienna, when I mistakenly entered a room. There was a gathering of Holocaust survivors, men and woman who, as young children, had been separated from their families and hidden from the Germans. They are some of the most tragic and least understood victims of the Holocaust. They carry a tremendous amount of guilt and sadness over the fact that they survived and their families did not. I spent a long time talking to them and listening to their stories. They broke my heart. I tucked away my memories of that day and waited for the story to take shape. The result is The Rembrandt Affair.
Q. I’m sure you’re aware of this, but many of your most devoted fans also happen to be women and make no secret of being in love with Gabriel Allon. And one of the hallmarks of your books is that they always include strong, captivating female characters. The Rembrandt Affair is no exception, and the star of this book is Zoe Reed. Who is she?
Zoe Reed is every corrupt businessman’s nightmare. She’s a British investigative reporter who works for London’s most prestigious business daily, and she takes great pleasure in making mincemeat out of tycoons who step out of line. She’s tough. She’s smart. She’s sexy. And she has a razor–sharp wit that routinely reduces arrogant CEOs to mush. But as it turns out, Zoe is less than perfect herself. She’s leading a double life. And because of that, she’s recruited to work against our villain, Martin Landesmann. I love Zoe Reed, and I think readers will, too. Every time I reread the words that came out of her mouth, I laugh.
Q. The Rembrandt Affair also features a remarkable cast of well–drawn minor characters. There’s a charming Marseilles crime boss, a failed artist who became one of the world’s best forgers, and a master art thief named Maurice Durand. I loved them all, but I have to say Monsieur Durand is my favorite.
Mine too, because he might well be the only art thief in the business who actually has a conscience. And without giving away too much of the story, Maurice Durand turns out to be the true hero of The Rembrandt Affair. He deserves his own book.
Q. In real life, does an art thief like Maurice Durand exist?