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Daniel Silva on his thriller novel 'The Collector'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Vermeer's "The Concert," painted in 1664, shows a young woman at a harpsichord, a man playing a lute and a woman singing. It may be the most valuable stolen object in the world. It was cut from its frame in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 and stolen along with 12 other works. There have been boasts about the whereabouts of the painting and leads over the years, and they've led nowhere. But when a South African shipping tycoon murdered in Amalfi turns out to have a secret vault holding an empty frame that matches the dimensions of the purloined masterpiece, who are you going to call? The Italian art police call Gabriel Allon, noted art conservator, artist, former Israeli intelligence official and hero of more than a score of bestselling novels by Daniel Silva. "The Collector" is his latest, and Daniel Silva joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

DANIEL SILVA: Thank you for having me. What a wonderful introduction. I wish I'd thought of that (laughter).

SIMON: Well, that's why we're here. So Gabriel is living the good life. He's quaffing Sancerre. He's hopscotching with his love between Venice, Paris and other glamorous locations. Why would he let himself be enlisted in this case?

SILVA: Because, like the person who created him, he gets annoyed about art theft, especially something like "The Concert." I mean, it is one of 34 works by Johannes Vermeer. It is an extraordinary crime against art. I'm still angry about it, and so is Gabriel. And he reluctantly takes the case, and as is often the case, it leads to an unexpected place.

SIMON: Some of your characters at one point review a list of possibles - people, groups or interest who may have wanted to take the Vermeer or wound up with it. How many of that is valid, according to your research, 'cause, as I don't have to tell you, some investigators think the works just might still be somewhere near Boston?

SILVA: The FBI is fairly certain about the identity of the two men who dressed as Boston police officers - in genuine Boston PD uniforms, by the way - and carried off the initial theft. The FBI is quite certain that they're both dead. The FBI believes that the paintings migrated to Connecticut, then headed down to the Philadelphia area, and in about 2007, they were put on the illicit market in the Philadelphia area.

SIMON: Even loving your book, I still don't understand - why would somebody traffic in stolen art when can't show it to friends or the world, they can't lend it to, you know, to galleries or museums for tax write-offs and to get their names on plaques, and they could be jailed?

SILVA: That is a debate within the art world. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a illicit black market for stolen art, antiquities and object art that are of great value. But when it comes to masterpieces like this, professional criminals are quite good at stealing the paintings, but they're lousy about trying to monetize their investment. The paintings end up sort of being used as underworld cash, for lack of a better word - you know, criminal traveler's checks, collateral and down payments in other criminal transactions - and that's something else that I explore in the novel - which makes it even more annoying. They took these paintings, and now they're just being swapped around, perhaps, and used in other ways.

SIMON: Yeah. Tell us about your new character you introduce here, Ingrid Johansen.

SILVA: Readers of my series know that I turn crooks and assassins and other people who are not necessarily the finest examples of our society and sort of turn them into protagonists. You know, Gabriel is a restorer, and he restores not only paintings, but people as well. Ingrid is a brilliant computer hacker. She has a little bit of touch of kleptomania, and she is an extraordinarily good con artist and thief. She accepts a $10 million payday to steal the Vermeer from a palazzo in Amalfi, not realizing that she's in way over her head and there's a much broader conspiracy, and ends up working with Gabriel to find the painting that she stole.

SIMON: You have written 23 novels with Gabriel Allon. How much space does he take up in your mind?

SILVA: As I explain to my wife all the time when I'm preoccupied or not listening to what she's trying to say to me, I spend more time in his world than I do in this world. You know, the cover of the book is sort of the view from his terrace of his apartment on the Grand Canal in Venice. He seems very, very real to me, as do all of the subcharacters in this series. I think of them as though they're real people. I imagine that they are out there living their lives in this parallel universe that I've created, and I like to just drop into it every now and again with a legal pad in my hand and a pencil and just sort of listen in.

SIMON: Without revealing too much, the story involves a trail that leads to Russia and great possible risk to the world. Does that risk reflect your own concerns about what's happening now?

SILVA: The book is set last autumn, and if you recall, there was that period where the United States became alarmed by what it was hearing and seeing the Russians doing there, that they were speaking very casually about using nuclear weapons, that they seemed to be hunting around for a pretext. There was evidence that they might be preparing some sort of false flag dirty bomb attack using radioactive material. And we were so alarmed, in fact, that President Biden took the extraordinary step of publicly warning Vladimir Putin, do not use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. It will have catastrophic results for you and your country.

I think that the threat of a nuclear attack of some sort by the Russians has probably receded. But I think what's more likely is some sort of nuclear-ish incident. You know, the Russians have this doctrine that they refer to as escalate in order to de-escalate, that they might ramp up and create some sort of crisis that would allow them to then de-escalate as a means of ending this war in a way that preserves some dignity for Putin and the Russian military.

SIMON: Wow. Daniel Silva's latest novel, "The Collector." Thank you so much for being with us.

SILVA: Thank you for having me. What a treat. I so enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.