by Barry Eisler
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
309 pages, 2002
Rain Is All Wet
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
I dunno. I was all set to really like Barry Eisler's new novel, Rain Fall. It sounded different enough from my usual reading fare to appeal to me: a thriller with an exotic setting (Tokyo) and all sorts of international shenanigans, yet with enough familiar elements to hook me (the outsider trying to hold on to a personal code of honor, a damsel in distress, courage, violence, that whole "down these mean streets a man must go" thing I usually go for in a big way).
So what if the hero's a hit man, specializing in "natural causes," and not a P.I. (or even just a good man gone wrong)? This could be interesting, I figured. I hadn't read a good ol' kick-ass thriller for a long time. I was due.
And this one boasted a honey of an idea, a twist-and-turn plot that sounded like something straight out of a 1940s RKO film noir quickie (that's meant as a compliment, by the way): Junichi "John" Rain is a world-weary hit man at the top of his game, a "half-breed warrior." He's seen it all after 25 years of working the small but lucrative field of political murder-for-hire in Tokyo. But then he takes on the task of dispatching a career bureaucrat, a vice-minister in the Liberal Democratic Party, Japan's ruling party. As usual, of course, Rain has to make it look as if the target died of usual causes.
It's no problem for John, though -- he's exceedingly good at what he does. He simply uses a specially rigged, handheld PDA to send infrared commands that override the victim's pacemaker, triggering a heart attack. It's all very high tech and very slick, and one hell of a way to kick off the book -- the murder takes place on a crowded, rush-hour subway train.
When he spots a Westerner going through the dead man's pockets, immediately after he falls to the floor, Rain realizes this was more than a simple hit. But as the days pass and things calm down, Rain figures he's out of it. He heads to a popular jazz hangout one night to relax, and is there smitten by the beautiful piano player in the featured act, only to discover that she is Midori Kawamura, the daughter of the man he just killed a week ago. It's a neat twist, like I said, something right out of an old B-flick. Yet things get even more complicated when the Westerner from the train shows up at the club.
Curious, and afraid that this stranger is some sort of police officer, perhaps suspicious of foul play in the death of Midori's father, Rain follows him when he leaves the club, only to realize that the Westerner is himself being shadowed by someone. As it turns out, Midori is suspected of having received important evidence of some sort from her father -- material that could destroy careers and topple the government itself, should it fall into the wrong hands. It's also apparent that more than one faction wants this evidence, and that not all of them care who they have to kill to get it.
Against his will, Rain finds himself acting as guardian to Midori, and even more dangerously, he finds himself falling for her. It's a weird bounce for the plot to take, but I was more than willing to see how Eisler could handle it.
Alas, Rain Fall ultimately didn't do much for me. One of the cardinal rules for a thriller is that it should thrill. But unfortunately, while there are some undeniably exciting things going on in Eisler's story, they never quite manage to grab hold of the reader.
John Rain is an ainoko, the product of an American mother and a Japanese father, haunted by his "half-breed" status and by his experiences as a covert U.S. Special Forces agent in Vietnam and Cambodia. He's cold and ruthless, a detached, supposedly emotionless killer for sale to the highest bidder. So far, so good.
And when Eisler focuses on the actual story at hand, he can be quite sharp and to the point, as terse and hard-boiled as Hammett:
I raised the pistol quickly, smoothly, chest level, double-tapping the trigger in the same motion. The two slugs slammed through his chest and blew out his back. [He] was dead before he hit the floor.
Regrettably, the author fails to maintain that terse, matter-of-fact tone that suits his character's first-person narration so well. Indeed, he seems to wander all over the stylistic map. At times there's an obvious attempt to, if not sell this book outright as noir fiction, at least evoke that genre's murky atmosphere, often in the most purplish prose imaginable. Repeated mentions of rain-slicked streets and smoke-filled bars, and imagery connections to the protagonist's last name, come off as a little over-earnest:
I waited and watched sad drops of water falling in a slow rhythm from the rusted roof onto the tops of dilapidated plastic refuse containers beneath.
Like, bummer, man.
Similarly, Rain's ham-fisted descriptions of jazz, and of the calming effect that music has on this character's oh-so-troubled soul don't so much recall the classic noir of the past as they do the late Frank Zappa's much-quoted potshot at music critics: "[W]riting about music is like dancing about architecture."
At other times, Rain Fall reads like some sort of gee-whiz Boys' Adventure book, full of impressive-sounding military and spy talk. We are solemnly informed on frequent occasions that Rain has to go out on an SDR, or "surveillance detection run." Elsewhere, the language just seems awkward and stilted:
I dreamed I was moving through dense jungle near Tchepone in southern Laos, hunted by an NVA counter-recon battalion. I had become separated from my team and was disoriented. I would sideslip and double back, but couldn't shake the NVA. They had me surrounded, and I knew I was going to be captured and tortured.
Surely after all these years, writers should have found a better way to deal with backstory than the hoary device of literarily convenient dream-flashbacks. And Vietnam-era flashbacks are the hoariest of them all. They've become the thriller equivalent of the private eye getting slugged on the back of the head, or the amateur sleuth stumbling over a body. So predictable, at this point, that they're almost laughable.
Then there's the Tokyo setting -- well-drawn and frequently fascinating (though if you've seen Black Rain or Blade Runner, it will be familiar), but too often there's a didactic tone to Eisler's descriptions. It's hard to keep the suspense at a fever pitch when one has to stop every few pages for the author to play tour guide. And Eisler tends to repeat himself. Readers ought to be seduced by his story, not force-fed through overstatement and redundancy. For example, I'm no expert on that whole Japanese warrior culture, and my understanding of it isn't particularly expanded by reading this book. However, I sure know the difference between ronin or samura, because Eisler insists on making the distinction several times.
And personally, I have no problem with Eisler dropping in occasional, italicized Japanese words; it's a great touch, establishing a certain foreignness to everything. Yet he then feels obliged, in too many instances, to provide translations. If you can't suss out an unfamiliar word's meaning from the context, perhaps it's not the time to use that word.
This tale has other problems, as well. For instance, Rain goes stomping all over Tokyo, sticking his nose into all sorts of other people's business, while faceless hordes, possibly working for the Japanese government, or maybe a cult, try to kill him and Midori. Conveniently, though, nobody -- most strikingly Midori herself -- ever asks Rain exactly who he is, or why he's involved.
To fill out John Rain's deep, dark past, Eisler reworks the Joseph Conrad riff to good effect, having the young soldier dispatched by the CIA into the Cambodian heart of darkness to eliminate a rogue American combatant who has built his own private army. However, he then refers to this pivotal event so often, sprinkling hints and allusions all over the place, that by the time the event's details are finally revealed, near the end of the book, it feels less like a revelation than a cheat. After waiting for so many pages, all we get is a rehash of Apocalypse Now?
Judging by his pic on the dust flap, author Eisler is a big handsome lug. He's a graduate of Cornell Law School who actually used to live in Japan, now resides in the San Francisco area, and according to an ominous note in his bio, "worked for the United States government for three years." (Hmm ... maybe he was employed by the post office?) Based on appearance and presentation, as well as the considerable push his publisher is giving him, he'll probably be a hit on the book circuit.
And there are certainly things to like about Rain Fall, at least when it stays focused. The opening scenes, with Rain shadowing Midori's father, and taking him out on the crowded subway, is especially well-handled. And when things start to go wrong with that hit, the story gets even better, unleashing a flood of paranoia and a Watergate-type conspiracy. (You'll never look at Hare Krishna sorts in an airport or on a street corner in the same way again.)
But, while this may seem impolitic to say, Rain Fall is a 200-page story padded out to 300 pages. Once we get past the great opening it seems to take forever (almost a third of the book) for things to really get cracking again. Eisler makes the mistake so common among first-time authors: He wants to tell us everything there is to know about his series character before we've even been made to care about the guy. In his mad rush to establish John Rain as a franchise, Eisler forgot to give us a proper handle on him. Is he a poor misunderstood killer, or a cold-blooded professional? A series character doesn't have to be lovable (think of Richard Stark's Parker, for example), but it sure helps if he's consistent.
There are plenty of soggy allusions to Rain's troubled history; however, if all this backstory was supposed to endear him to us, it was a major miscalculation. (Imagine James Bond as a whiny adolescent who never quite grew up or got over his childhood, and you've got John Rain.)
Rain's actions don't make him particularly intriguing, either. He's hard and callous, at times almost to the point of sadistic cruelty. He heartlessly dispatches a pawn in this story's game, mocking the guy even as he pleads for his life, calmly informing him that he'll send flowers to the poor sap's wife and kids. And then we're expected to care that Rain's daddy didn't love him?
In his next book, Eisler should trust his readers a bit more, not spend so much time and effort connecting the dots for them. Call me old-fashioned, but thrillers, at least in my mind, should be taut, quick-paced stories. Everything doesn't have to be explained right away, and certainly not more than once. Allow the tale to unfold naturally, and let the bigger picture gradually come into focus. Hook your readers, drag them along for the ride, crank up the action and suspense as you go, explain things on the fly and be sure you have a kick-ass ending. Too much telling, and not enough showing, can be detrimental to the action.
But what do I know? Rain Fall is being touted as "the start of a hit series." There's already talk of a movie deal. It might be worth it, just to see if there's an actor on the planet who can spout lines such as, "So? Launch the missile. Destroy the corruption. Let the society breathe again," without smirking. | October 2002
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth and inclination, he's been spotted recently, lurking around the Los Angeles area. The invasion plans are going well.