by Barry Eisler
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
341 pages, 2004
A Man of Horrible Skills
Reviewed by David Montgomery
There is just something about the real cool killer, to borrow a phrase from Chester Himes, which piques the interest of so many readers. The unique moral code, the take-charge attitude, the ability to do the things an ordinary person never could or would. As the books of Trevanian, Lawrence Block, Thomas Perry, Loren D. Estleman, Max Allan Collins and, now, Barry Eisler have shown, crime-fiction fans love a good hit man.
John Rain, it just so happens, is among the best. Half-Japanese, half-American, all badass, Rain is among the deadliest men ever to take up arms in a thriller. (Of course, he hardly needs any arms but his own -- one of Rain's favorite offensive moves is the neck crank, delivered so swiftly and fatally that his opponent seldom even realizes what is happening before he never realizes anything again.)
At the end of Hard Rain, last year's Gumshoe Award-nominated second book in the series, John Rain was preparing to leave Japan and retire from the assassin business. The way of life he had lived for some 30 years, ever since his days in Vietnam, had taken its toll on him. After costing him so much, and, finally, costing him love, Rain had had enough.
As with Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III, however, just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in. Rain's old employers, the Christians in Action (yes, CIA), find him trying to live a quiet life in Brazil, just another Japanese expat enjoying days filled with sun, sand and smooth caipirinhas. The CIA folks have a job and they need his help. Rain is given little choice: the demons, both real and imagined, that still haunt him from his previous life will never let him rest. He is too valuable, too much a part of his old employers' system, for them to ever let him go. For his part, there is no way Rain can afford financially to keep running, nowhere far enough away to hide. He comes to realize that, as with Heifetz or Horowitz, he is the very best at what he does, and there is no way he can really retire.
The assignment the CIA has for him seems simple enough: he is to journey to Macau, the small island off the southeast coast of China, and there kill Achille Belghazi, a French-Arab arms dealer known for supplying several Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian terror groups. Belghazi, it seems, is a degenerate gambler and will be spending time in the famed high-roller casinos of Macau. His expected presence there should make him an easy target for elimination.
Of course, things don't work out quite as Rain expected. Belghazi proves easy enough to get close to, but removing him without leaving any evidence behind will be much tougher. (One of the reasons that Rain is the best at what he does is due to his mastery of the "natural causes" hit -- when Rain kills you, nobody even suspects that you were murdered.) Part of that difficulty can be traced to the presence of an exotic, beautiful and appropriately mysterious woman who goes by the name Delilah, and is seldom far from Belghazi's side. She has her own designs on the Algerian smuggler, and she needs him alive to get what she wants. Since she proves herself to be nearly as skilled as Rain is at the art of subterfuge, Delilah is a formidable stumbling block.
An additional potential hitch in Rain's plan is presented by the arrival of another operative on the scene, a hayseed hit man known only as "Dox," a name he earned with his unorthodox methods of fighting and killing, involving a wide variety of styles, tricks and improvised explosive devices. In addition, Dox is a sniper, one of the best long-range killers around, something Rain knows well from the time they spent fighting together against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Now, though, Rain isn't quite sure which side Dox is on.
One of the real strengths of Eisler's writing is the time and effort this lawyer-turned-author puts into developing his secondary characters. Never content with a throwaway archetype or cliché, his creations are unique, multidimensional and memorable. Whether it's Delilah, Dox or Tokyo-based CIA agent Tomohisa Kanezaki, Eisler's characters are all given enough personality to make them full-fledged players in his stories. As a consequence, Rain's interactions and relationships with them are that much more meaningful and important.
Another area where this author excels is in the writing of action, especially fight scenes. As a highly skilled martial artist himself, Eisler knows intimately the techniques his characters employ and this expert knowledge adds considerable verisimilitude to his books. Witness this fight scene between Rain and his opponent:
[Belghazi] chambered his right leg, feinted, then returned the foot to the ground. He repeated the maneuver. And again. The upraised leg started to return to the ground and I saw my opening. I shot forward. But the third time had been no feint, or in fact it had been the real feint, and the leg reversed course and whipped in from my left. I covered up with my left elbow and the toe of his shoe caught me between the biceps and triceps. It felt like I'd been hit with a hammer. He retracted the kick, then shot it in again, this time toward my forward knee. I lifted the leg just as his heel landed, and, although it hurt, the impact was dissipated enough to prevent meaningful damage.
It is not just in the fight scenes, though, that Eisler shows his talent. His books are much more than the literary equivalent of a Bruce Lee movie -- a pitfall that some who essay similar stories often fall prey to. Eisler is a gifted stylist and his prose is as good as what anyone else can deliver in this genre.
When Rain takes a train ride through Japan's countryside, Eisler describes the view so perfectly that his narrative unspools like a movie in one's mind. At the same time, he uses the scene to make the reader aware that Rain's journey is through a unique setting, a place very different from our own in both its landscape and culture:
A sliver of sun had broken through the clouds at the edge of the horizon, shining like a sepia spotlight through an otherwise gray and undifferentiated firmament, and in the fading moments of the day I looked on at the scenes without, scenes that passed before me as disconnected and mute as images in a silent film. A rice paddy in the distance, tended by a lone woman, who seemed lost in its sodden expanse. A man tiredly peddling a bicycle, his dark suit seeming almost to sag from his frame as though wanting nothing more than to cease this purposeless forward momentum and succumb to gravity's heavy embrace. A child with a yellow knapsack paused before the lowered gate of the rapito railroad crossing, perhaps on his way to a juku, or cram school, which would stuff his head with facts for the next dozen years until it was time for them to be disgorged for college entrance exams.
John Rain remains one of the most fascinating characters in crime fiction, an intriguing, troubling man, made different from the rest of us by his unique and horrible skills. When I reviewed Eisler's first book, Rain Fall, in 2002, I described his protagonist as "a multifaceted killer with the soul of a poet." That depiction has only been reinforced by the subsequent two books.
Rain boasts a depth that is all too rare in your typical action thriller. This is ably demonstrated by his musings upon returning to the home he was forced to flee, in Hard Rain, while avoiding capture:
I took a final look around, trying to recollect the life that I once had here. There was a feeling that lingered, certainly, something insubstantial that expressed its longing for corporeity in the form of a series of long sighs, but nothing I could really grasp. The interior of the town was just the same, yes, and yet, imbued with the unfair weight of my memories, it was now all hauntingly changed. I didn't belong here anymore, and I felt like an apparition, something unnatural that was right to have left and foolish to have returned.
There is a pervading sense of and commitment to realism in Eisler's books, something that most readers will realize, consciously or otherwise. He visits all the settings he writes about, whether it's Hong Kong or Rio or Macau, scouting them and assessing the possibilities and complications of any location. He consults medical doctors to ensure that Rain's "natural causes" killing techniques are plausible. He talks to snipers, FBI agents and security specialists, anyone who can provide the expert insight that Rain relies upon to stay alive.
Whether or not everything that happens in the Rain yarns is strictly accurate or not, I couldn't say. I do know, however, that Eisler does his job so well that everything seems possible, and that is what really matters.
Rain Storm is not a novel for everyone. Some readers might be put off by the story's violence; some might be unable to warm up to an assassin as a "hero." But for those who can get past these factors, Barry Eisler's books, this latest in particular, are sure to please even the most discriminating readers. Don't wait any longer -- pick one up today! | July 2004
David Montgomery is the editor of Mystery Ink and the mystery columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. He also contributes regularly to such publications as USA Today, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.