The Intelligencer by Leslie Silbert
This complex novel is set in two centuries, with two casts of characters, and two plots. The unifying thread is a collection of intelligence reports in cypher supposed to be from the files of Frances Walsingham, spymaster for Elizabeth I, which disappeared in the sixteenth century. This book has them reappear in modern times in the possession of Cidro Medina, a young, handsome, British financier whose London home is burgled by a mysterious criminal, seeking the manuscript, who commits suicide by poison as he is apprehended. Medina hires the Slade Group to investigate whereupon we meet operative Kate Morgan, erstwhile graduate student in Renaissance literature, who begins to decipher the manuscripts while conducting other operations for the part of the Slade Group which accepts CIA assignments. Kate’s off-the-books, CIA assignment involves meeting, getting fingerprints and a voice recording to establish a real identity for Luca de Tolomei a mysterious, obviously very wealthy, Italian art dealer. Described as the bad boy of the Sotheby’s set, he has just paid eleven million dollars to a highly placed figure in the Iranian security service, but does not seem to have existed prior to 1991. Spy satellites watch as a box is mysteriously transferred at night from one of the ships formerly involved in evading the oil embargo to de Tolomei’s yacht in the Mediterranean.
In the sixteenth century, we follow the adventures of several real people, among them Christopher Marlowe, playwright and intelligence agent for one faction in the highly competitive and understandably paranoid world of Elizabethan espionage. The notion that (British) “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail” was a product of the restrained and peaceful nineteenth century. In the police state that was Elizabethan England, spying, torture and guilt by mere suspicion were customary. By 1593, three years after Walsingham’s death, the competing factions, led by Sir Robert Cecil, and Robert Devereux, Lord Essex were circling each other, egged on by Elizabeth, herself, who was quite happy with both Cecil’s information and Essex as her bed partner. Replete with Elizabethan arms smuggling, commercial fraud, and political and religious intrigue, the concerns of the 16th century begin to sound rather like our own, some of the solutions they found both real and imagined begin to sound familiar also.
Leslie Silbert has written a novel of multi- level intrigue, where even the things that we know happened the sixteenth century can be brought into question. Laced with the details of espionage tradecraft of both the sixteenth and twentieth century, the book slips easily between the creators of the 16th century documents, and their decoders and investigators in the modern era. The motivations of the characters of both centuries are as complicated as the hidden paths of the human heart, and even the best spy satellites can only record activities, not explain why they happen. There is a second novel promised soon entitled Killing Caravaggio which will involve Kate Morgan and many of the same twentieth century characters, with a historic adventure based on the life and death of the artist Caravaggio.
Mary K. Spore-Alhadef