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No safe haven for modern-day assassins

by Mark Schreiber

MAXIMUM TARGET, by Martin Gower. NoirEast Publishing, 2011, 360 pp., $26 (hardcover)
THE DETACHMENT, by Barry Eisler. Thomas & Mercer, 2011, 324 pp., $14.95 (paperback)

Some time ago, it became clear that thriller fiction set in Asia that featured Caucasian superheroes like James Bond was becoming increasingly implausible. At least two authors still writing in this genre understand this and are modifying their approaches accordingly.

The protagonist of “Maximum Target” is Jun Kaneko, an English-speaking Japanese yakuza who has reluctantly stepped in to lead his late father’s gang. Kaneko is an “intellectual” yakuza, with a degree in economics from Waseda University.

“There are all kinds of crime,” Kaneko philosophizes to his ex-wife, who detests him. “Some more serious than others, but they have a common thread. The idea is to benefit yourself at the expense of others. That’s the yakuza business in a nutshell.”

Among Kaneko’s motley crew of troopers is Kenji, his thuggish and not too bright younger sibling. This brotherly exchange demonstrates author Gower’s black humor:

“So who did you shoot?”

“I don’t know … uh … a guy called Tanaka, I suppose.”

“You didn’t see the face?

“He was asleep, turned the other way. Then one of the guys put the pillow over his head … What else could I do? I had to shoot him. Otherwise I would have looked bad in front of the others.”

The narrative meanders from the Philippines to North Korea, Japan, Macau and China. Recruiting a yakuza for a political assassination seems a bit far-fetched, but the stream of endearingly eccentric characters keeps the reader’s attention riveted right up to the book’s violent but satisfying climax.

“The Detachment” is the sixth in Barry Eisler’s series featuring the half-Japanese freelance assassin John Rain.

With al-Qaida readying a new attack on the United States, Rain, now living in Tokyo, is brought out of semi-retirement by Col. Hort, head of America’s most deadly covert hit team, the Intelligence Support Activity. Hort needs Rain back on the job to surgically eliminate an American security risk. Or so Rain is told.

Against his better judgment, Rain is forced to work with a second team, Treven and Larison, men even more merciless and mercenary than himself. Trusting neither, Rain brings in backup in the form of an ex-Marine sniper named Dox, the only man in the world close to being his friend.

After successfully taking out two targets, the four killers realize Hort has set them up and they’re now expendable. Despite their mutual hostility and mistrust — after all it’s paranoia that’s enabled them to survive so far — they realize their only chance lies in cooperation.

But this presents a difficult quandary. How do four killers suppress their reflexive fight-or-flight response, even when they accept it has become their greatest vulnerability?

Eisler, who has an intelligence background, lets one of his characters eloquently explain the predicament that every protagonist in contemporary espionage fiction now faces: “There are just too many ways the opposition can get a handle on us now. Video cameras everywhere, surveillance drones being deployed over American cities, the NSA spying domestically, the government and all the Internet and telecom companies working together, satellites and supercomputers crunching data … I think we’re in a world now where, if the man wants to find you, you’re going to get found.”

Both Gower and Eisler realize Japan is too tame and confining to let their characters run wild and engage in gunplay. Gower’s story remains in Asia throughout; Eisler’s starts in Japan, then moves to Europe and the United States, with most of the story taking place in Los Angeles.

While these books adopt radically different approaches, it’s hard to play favorites here. Both novels maintain the tension, and both authors successfully push the envelope on the spy genre.