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The Russians are coming!

by Mark Schreiber

SATORI, by Don Winslow. Grand Central Publishing, 2011, 548 pp., $7.99 (paper)
9 GOLD BULLETS, by Christopher G. Moore. Heaven Lake Press, 2011, 365 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Readers of mystery and thriller fiction can be extremely loyal and publishers, knowing this, sometimes arrange to bring fictional characters back to life after the deaths of their creators. For instance, Ian Fleming’s famous Agent 007, James Bond, has been revived by Kingsley Amis and Jefferey Deaver.

Trevanian, nom de plume of Rodney William Whitaker (1931-2005), was an American film scholar and wonderfully versatile writer who could do everything from spy spoofs (“The Eiger Sanction”) to gritty frontier stories (“Incident at Twenty Mile”).

His 1979 best-seller, “Shibumi” (meaning quiet, severe taste), introduced Nicholai Hel, a stateless Russian emigre who had been taken under the wing of a Japanese general and molded into a coldblooded killing machine.

While Hel sometimes projects the arrogance befitting his aristocratic roots, he craves intellectual stimulation and enjoys relationships with colorfully exotic friends of both sexes. He has been trained to kill silently and swiftly with virtually any handy object: a credit card, a pocket comb or, in a pinch, his index finger.

The timeline of Don Winslow’s “Satori” (meaning enlightenment) makes it a prequel to Trevanian’s original work. The year is 1951 and Hel, incarcerated at Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison for slaying his adopted Japanese father General Kishikawa (to spare him from being executed by the Allies), is offered amnesty by the CIA if he can succeed in penetrating security and assassinating the top Soviet commissar in Beijing.

Hel is carefully trained to create an identity as a French arms merchant to give him a convincing cover. But betrayal lurks everywhere and Hel’s escape from a succession of traps tests the reader’s credulity.

Satori reflects some good historical research, particularly the backdrop of Saigon before the partition of Vietnam. Unfortunately Winslow falls short in his attempt to clone Trevanian’s brilliant assassin, and the style more closely resembles the works of another thriller writer, Eric Van Lustbader, whose technique I described some years ago as “karate-chopped chop suey.”

Thai Bullets

One of the tried-and-true formulas in mystery and thriller fiction set in Asia involves the quest to recover some priceless vase, scroll or other antique formerly owned by an emperor or similarly illustrious person.

This time, I was quite pleased to see that Bangkok-based author Christopher G. Moore based his narrative on the search for an object actually known to exist. The bullets in this case are a set of antique gold “bullet” coins cast during the reign of King Rama V of Thailand and presented to Russia’s Czar Nicholas II.

Series character Vincent Calvino, a tough ex-lawyer turned private investigator, finds himself reluctantly involved when an old childhood friend from New York, Josh Stein, is entrusted with transporting the coin collection from Thailand to New York on behalf of a client, a ruthless Russian billionaire named Andrei Smirnof, who has purchased the coins at auction.

Thailand wants to keep them at home, to display in its National Coin Museum. When part of the coin set — and the man believed to have sold it — turns up missing, Calvino teams up with his Thai “brother,” police colonel Pratt, and the East-West duo manage to turn the tables on the Russian hoods.

Moore consistently manages to entertain without having to resort to melodramatics. The most compelling feature of his ongoing Calvino saga, in my view, is the symbiotic relationship between the American protagonist and his Thai friends, who have evolved with the series.

The friendships are sometimes strained along cultural stress lines, but they endure, and the Thai characters’ supporting roles are very effective in helping keep the narratives interesting and plausible.