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Daniel Silva and the Art of the Beach Read

Bookworm: The new bestselling spy thriller, ‘The Other Woman,’ excels at this one thing

Alexander Aciman
August 20, 2018
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine

Among the spy and detective fiction writers of today there is no distinction more dubious than “transcending the genre.” What does it mean for a work to transcend the genre? To have outgrown its form? To be better than it should be? It is with this backhanded honorific that the spy and detective genre is robbed of its greatest works, which can only be so excellent before they are inevitably claimed by the august of great literature. And this obscures just how much fun these books can be. Just ask Raymond Chandler or John le Carré or Dorothy B. Hughes. As a result, the the untranscendent—the beach reads—have come to define the entire spy and detective genre. This summer, that beach read is Daniel Silva’s newest book, The Other Woman.

Silva has been writing bestselling thrillers for more than 20 years, and in his latest work the author brings back one of his most beloved characters, Israeli intelligence officer Gabriel Allon, who is tasked with sniffing out a high-ranking Russian mole operating somewhere within the networks of various Western intelligence agencies. As he unravels a mystery that threatens to expose some of the most dangerous political secrets, Allon must also prove his innocence after a valuable asset is gunned down in the street. In the backdrop, though never explicitly mentioned, we see Trump’s alleged relationship with Russia muddle the intelligence community’s clandestine operations.

The Other Woman flawlessly skates across every aspect of the beach-read form. Enough intrigue and reversal to keep you reading throughout summer afternoons without being spellbinding. Characters you can relate to but who will never break your heart. Mysteries that are hard to second-guess so that they can unravel in the last 20 or so pages. Plots and cabals and inside-baseball lingo that you never really need to learn. You can come out of the water bleary-eyed and dehydrated and sun sick and yet never miss a beat.

Indeed, Silva carefully crafted a book that was designed to shoot to the very top of the bestseller list and do nothing else. It was not meant to transcend the genre, for doing so would mean forgoing its greatest achievement, and the highest aspiration of any beach read: The Other Woman excels at being only slightly more entertaining than doing nothing at all. In a few weeks it will make an excellent doorstop and you will have forgotten the plot altogether. Should thrillers really be this easy to forget?

I cannot in good faith downplay the value of a book that you can still understand even if you were to skip 75 percent of every paragraph—especially on noisy airplanes full of crying children or in the company of relatives who will try to engage you in full conversations even while you’re reading. But functionally such books are no different than crossword puzzles. You don’t remember that one crossword you did one summer. You basically forget them the second they’re finished, and sometimes you don’t even finish them at all, and that’s fine too.

The greatest genre writers—those we call transcendent—have always understood that what separates a great spy novel from a campfire story are its characters. We get glimpses into their desires, neuroses, impulses. Their memories are more than just recollections from a previous mission. We don’t love these protagonists simply because they were featured in the previous installment of a series and because continuity is nice. They have a full, complex internal life that accompanies them—and often even encumbers them.

In The Other Woman the closest thing we get to internal thoughts are moments at which characters are silently thinking about geopolitics over their morning coffee. Thoughts are always pressing reflections of the plot, and rarely, if ever, of the character having them. The most complex character notes are descriptions of bone structure. (Or, if they are women, how well or poorly they have aged and their breasts.) The introduction of a new character is followed inevitably by two pages about what they used to do for work. This is as intimately as we get to know anyone. You forget who is who and it doesn’t really matter.

If books like The Other Woman can be picked up and put down midsentence, it is because the plot is molded to the stop-and-go pace of beach reading. The Other Woman is stretched out artificially over 400 pages, I suspect, so that it is able to last the length of a beach weekend. Anything shorter wouldn’t be worth bringing with you. Stretching the story out means that many parts of this book do not drive the plot at all, which is fine if you’re Ford Madox Ford, but not if a book is theoretically supposed to be, if nothing else, plot-driven. The plot follows familiar patterns so that you can understand the story without ever giving it your full attention. Like a Marvel movie, readers can expect a confrontation with the enemy in the last 40 pages. Formula robs the book of stakes, and therefore of its value as an actual thriller.

Books like Silva’s are always marketed as gripping, thrilling, fast-paced, a blaze of intrigue, which is a lie, because these books were never meant to be anything of the sort. They’re meant to be time-fillers. If you can’t put it down, that’s because doing so would require you to do something slightly more boring, like staring at the wall.

What do we get out of these books? At the very least, decent, thoughtful genre fiction is a great deal of fun. Dashiell Hammett wasn’t Graham Greene, and he never needed to be. But where is the fun here? Ultimately the aim of this book is to help its readers whittle away idle time. And regardless of the need for diversion in the regular course of our lives, reading books that do nothing but help pass the time, though incredibly useful in treating our impulses for instant gratification, are often no different than wasting away waking hours by messing around on the internet. We don’t necessarily love passing time this way even if we do it again and again. It is not particularly rewarding, nor is it truly bad.

So if you have three days in August to burn at the beach, Daniel Silva may very well be your best friend. But if it is thrills you are after, pick up some Raymond Chandler or Graham Greene.


Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.

Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.