Novelist takes on Vatican secrecy with new spy thriller

You just can't buy publicity this good.

Only days before the publication of his new novel "The Confessor," a gripping story about the Catholic Church's complicity in the Holocaust, author Daniel Silva saw the headlines in the paper.

The Vatican had just announced it would open up to scholars some of its secret wartime archives, the very same archives Silva wrote about.

Despite the historic nature of the announcement, Silva nevertheless found himself a bit underwhelmed.

"This is a very narrow release of documents," said the Washington, D.C.-based writer. "Some critical years are missing. I would like to see every piece of paper on the subject released."

In his novel, Silva doesn't bother to wait.

"The Confessor" is the third installment of his popular Gabriel Allon series, and his sixth novel overall. Allon is Silva's fictitious Israeli intelligence officer, a world-class art restorer and, occasionally, a reluctant hit man for the Mossad.

In "The Confessor," Allon finds himself investigating the murder of a friend who had been researching the church's ties with the Third Reich. The trail leads to one explosive document and a massive cover-up engineered by top Vatican officials.

As Allon edges ever closer to the dangerous truth, the scene shifts from Vienna to Venice, London to Tel Aviv in an irresistible tableau of international intrigue.

How did Silva ever come up with the idea?

"The church triggered it by putting Pope Pius XII up for canonization," he says, referring to the wartime pontiff condemned by some for his silence in the face of the unfolding Shoah. "I was interested in the Pius debate and was looking for a way to turn it into something."

He was also affected by the 1998 release of "We Remember," the church's long-awaited and much-excoriated apologia on the Holocaust.

"'We Remember' fell tragically short," said Silva. "It said, 'We're sorry, but it wasn't our fault. The church had nothing to do with the anti-Semitism that led to the destruction of European Jewry.'"

Silva's interest in the subject was much more than academic. He grew up in a devout Catholic home, was the product of a Catholic education and yet converted to Judaism as an adult.

This stuff matters to him.

"I'm not afraid of being branded anti-Catholic," said Silva, "because I'm not. I think some will criticize me, but given all we know today, I don't think the book is all that controversial."

Silva grew up in Merced, and attended graduate school at San Francisco State University, studying international relations.

While a student, he landed a temp position as a UPI reporter covering the 1984 Democratic Convention.

That launched his journalism career, as well as a lifelong love of the Bay Area. "I lived in the Sunset District," he recalled. "I also has a tumble-down apartment at 14th and Geary. I'm still a passionate Raiders fan."

Silva went on to serve as UPI's Cairo-based foreign correspondent and a producer-reporter for CNN in Washington, D.C.

While at CNN, Silva tried his hand at fiction, finding quick success with his first book "The Unlikely Spy" (1994). Other bestsellers include "The Mark of the Assassin," "The Marching Season," "The Kill Artist" and "The English Assassin."

Along the way he met and married NBC news reporter Jamie Gangel. Her Jewish background helped open the door to Silva's eventual conversion.

"I was culturally Jewish from the time I met her," he said.. "I felt very comfortable with it, and when I started exploring the faith more, I realized that intellectually I was comfortable as well."

As for his Catholic past, Silva says he has fond memories. "I asked many Catholics if they had ever encountered any anti-Semitism in the church, and the answer was uniformly 'no.' The American Catholic experience is completely removed from Europe in the '30s."

For Silva, part of the fun of writing "The Confessor" was getting better acquainted with the multilingual super-spy, Gabriel Allon.

Said Silva, "He's very likeable and sympathetic, but he really does do some unsavory things. The two sides to his character — destroyer-assassin and restorer — wrestle within him constantly."

Equally fun for readers is Silva's in-depth look at the Machiavellian politics of the Vatican.

"I live next door to a Jesuit university, Georgetown, with its vast collection. I wanted to create a realistic backdrop but not go overboard."

With the high profile of such recent tomes about the church, such as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's "A Moral Reckoning," Silva has high hopes for his own book and for his readers.

"I hope they're entertained most of all," he said. "But there's a new wave of anti-Semitism in Europe these days, which troubles me deeply. I hope this book provokes more discussion about the role of the church during the war, and what more needs to be done for repair."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.