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Jewish Journal

Writer spins thrillers from his own undercover adventures

by Sandee Brawarsky

November 16, 2006 | 7:00 pm

Haggai Carmon

Haggai Carmon

Jet lag launched Haggai Carmon into his career as an author. The international lawyer found himself in a small, unheated hotel room in a remote country he won't identify. He was on U.S. government assignment, collecting intelligence on a violent criminal organization, but his security cover had been blown, and he was advised by Interpol not to leave his hotel room.

Tired, but too scared to sleep, Carmon sat at a child-sized desk with his laptop computer and spun 100 pages of a thriller based on, but disguising, his experiences. Those first 100 pages became the basis for "Triple Identity," the first in a series of three thrillers featuring Dan Gordon, a lawyer and former Mossad agent working for the U.S. Department of Justice.

"I always finish what I start," Carmon, 61, said in an interview in his Manhattan law office.

Published last year, "Triple Identity" was reissued in paperback and is now in stores. Meanwhile, his latest novel, "The Red Syndrome," was recently published (Steerforth Press) and the third book in the ongoing series, "Chameleon," will be published next year.

The foreword to the first book is written anonymously by a retired member of the Mossad's top echelon, who quotes a line from Proverbs as the organization's motto, "For by deception thou shalt make thy war," emphasizing the war of minds, not weapons. Knesset member Efraim Sneh pens the foreword to "The Red Syndrome."

"The Red Syndrome" involves Dan Gordon in an international money-laundering case that radiates from some Russian mobsters in Brooklyn. His investigations unravel a much larger case than his boss at the Justice Department imagined, one involving international bioterrorism, with the United States threatened by an Iranian-based group called the Slaves of Allah. The case is assigned to the CIA, and Gordon -- always the independent-minded thinker and analyst -- joins a multiagency team on the terrorists' trail.

The novel is full of layers of espionage, betrayal, a touch of romance, blackmail, kidnapping, high-tech tools and quick thinking. The reader follows the case from Gordon's point of view, sensing his suspicions, but Gordon stays out ahead of the reader.

Carmon has mastered his genre well, creating an intriguing, suspenseful, smart plot that makes for timely and compelling reading. At a time of much upheaval in the world, Carmon is clear about good and evil.

"The forces of evil are relentless," Carmon said, admitting that he writes fiction with a pro-democracy, pro-Israel message. "The world, in particular the Jewish people, should not be indifferent. I always suggest believing the enemy. In 1923, Hitler outlined what he was going to do and nobody believed him. The Iranian prime minister says that he wants to wipe Israel off of the map. We should believe him and be ready. Our worst enemy is complacency."

Carmon's own investigations have involved many countries, sometimes up to 20, and many millions, sometimes a billion, dollars. He said that his supervisors have told him that whenever he touches a case, it suddenly becomes interesting; that some serious matters touching on national security, or sometimes megafraud, are discovered.

The lawyer evades most questions about similarities between himself and his character, although at times they sound like doubles. Both state unequivocally that they never give up.

"The books are inspired by my work, but it's not real. Some of it happened, and I changed names and places," he said. Carmon is quick to point out that he "never served in the Mossad. Dan Gordon did."

"Dan Gordon was trained in the Mossad to think in a certain way," Carmon said. "In law school, I, too, was trained to think in a certain way. I remember talking with government agents who were surprised that I knew to look under a certain stone. I don't know whether it's intuition, training or experience. In life, things are never as they seem."

He pointed out that his books have many Jewish elements and values. Benny Friedman, the character who heads the international office of the Mossad, is an Orthodox Jew who, "at the end of the day, comes out as the smartest of them all.

"I don't write crime stories. I write about historical events that I was personally involved with. This is not routine police work. Not Ellery Queen, not Agatha Christie. I write from the perspective of an insider," Carmon said.

His father was a writer, or rather he was a farmhand turned banker, who was born in Belarus and eventually served as president of a small bank in Israel. Writing was something he did on the side. At the age of 57, he published his first book and subsequently wrote several others.

The first book his father published was on the eve of Carmon's bar mitzvah and was dedicated to him. Carmon re-published the book on his father's 100th birthday, when Carmon's oldest son became a bar mitzvah. The elder Carmon's books were about Eastern wisdom, Chinese poetry, short stories and fables.

Carmon grew up amid privilege in Tel Aviv. After high school, he served in the Israeli air force and was in active combat. He graduated from Tel Aviv University, where he studied political science in the developing world. After completing law school, he became active politically in Israel, serving as unpaid adviser to Shimon Peres, simultaneously pursuing a career in international law. He became known as a problem solver.

In 1985, Carmon began working for the U.S. Department of Justice, first on matters related to the litigation of civil cases in Israel and later on other issues related to international asset recovery.

At a book party earlier this month in Washington, D.C., co-hosted by Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon, Carmon's former supervisor, David Epstein, former director of the Justice Department's Office of Foreign Litigation, spoke. Epstein and Carmon worked together for 18 years, and Epstein acknowledged that he was the basis for the fictional David Stone, director of the office of international asset recovery and money laundering. Epstein said that what went on in the field was often "stranger than fiction."

Carmon has faced frequent threats and tells a story of the time he was assaulted on the job. He was severely beaten up after obtaining bank documents in an unnamed Central European country. Soaked in blood, he knew he had to leave the country, so he went directly to the airport and caught a flight to Reykjavik, Iceland, quickly explaining to airline agents that he had been in a car accident and that the other guy was seriously hurt. Most of his writing is done on long plane rides -- he does frequent international travel -- and in the early mornings when he's at his home in Israel. Carmon and his wife, the parents of five children, also live on New York's Long Island.

These days, his work schedule remains hectic (the fourth and fifth volumes in the series are in the works), but he no longer gets involved in the kind of international hands-on investigations he used to do, in part, because now that he has written these books -- with his photo on the book jacket -- it would be difficult for him to work undercover.

He explained that this was a consideration in his decision to write fiction, but, as he said, "I thought I had something to say that's more important than the actual work that I do."


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