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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Ice cold assassin a cool read
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Requiem for an Assassin
By Barry Eisler
Putnam, 368 pp, 24.95 dollars
The professional criminal planning one last job before retirement is a pop culture staple, as is the retired or reformed gunman being forced back into action to save a friend. Former Tokyo and Osaka resident and former CIA spook Barry Eisler uses these archetypal premises as the jumping-off point in his latest and possibly last novel featuring Japanese-American assassin-for-hire John Rain.
Like all genre fiction, the espionage thriller has its conventions, certain things the author is expected to provide. High-tech gadgets? Check. Cool, ruthless hero? Check. Exotic international settings? Check. Wisecracking sidekick? Check. Double-crossing villain? Check.
In lesser hands, Requiem for an Assassin could have been a standard-issue, cookie-cutter spy thriller of the sort that clog the shelves of airport bookshops around the world. But John Rain is not a standard-issue protagonist and Eisler, for all his respect for the convention of the genre, does not write cookie-cutter novels.
Rain is a thinking man's James Bond. While Bond's penchant for high living, beautiful women, gourmet food and flashy cars make him the most conspicuous secret agent ever, Eisler's Rain strives to keep a low profile, presenting the face of an anonymous salaryman or Japanese tourist to the world. He specializes in murders that look like accidents and is a study in emotional detachment, tradecraft and paranoia. He is constantly scanning the room for possible tails, wary of cameras, never sitting with his back to a door or going anywhere without an escape route and cover story. But is it paranoia when they really are out to get you?
In this case the "they" is Jim Hilger, a rogue Central Intelligence Agency contractor who, while still bearing a grudge against Rain for foiling one of his operations in the previous book in the series, nonetheless finds himself in need of the Japanese-American hit man's particular expertise. In order to persuade Rain, now living in semiretirement in Paris, to cooperate, Hilger and his henchmen abduct Dox, Rain's partner and one of his only friends. In order to free his comrade-in-arms, Rain must commit three murders for Hilger. Needless to say, tables get turned, plots get twisted and the body count mounts before the good guys save the world.
The Tokyo setting that figured so prominently in the earliest books of series has been replaced here with Saigon, Amsterdam, Singapore, Silicon Valley and New York, though Rain does make a brief stopover in his old hometown to recommend a few local eateries.
In addition to the emphasis on professional spycraft, Eisler has done his technical homework on all the hardware, but in the main avoids the common action novel trap of turning his books into catalogues of weapons and gear from Spies-R-Us.
What sets Rain apart is Eisler's ability as a writer to get inside the psychology of the character's almost split personality. Rain is surprisingly human and self-aware for an action hero.
In action, Rain is a cold-blooded, remorseless machine that kills without warning or emotion. But when the job is done, he hurts. Rain is a killer with a conscience and he worries about the emotional and spiritual price he has paid for all the deaths he's caused, while at the same time realizing that if his conscience causes him to hesitate at the wrong time, it could cost him his own life.
Rain recognizes the sociopath inside himself and worries that with each job, he is coming closer to turning into "the iceman" for good. It is this depth that makes the character, and by extension the book, believable and what sets Eisler head and shoulders above the pack of run-of-the-mill thriller writers.
(Jun. 16, 2007)

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