Portrait of the assassin as a young man

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Sometime in the 1970s, as more Americans began to rally against the Vietnam War, an unknown cynic parodied the U.S. Army’s promotional recruitment tagline with the slogan, “Join the Army! Travel to unusual places. Meet interesting people, and kill them.”

The killing part, at least, pretty much describes how John Rain, author Barry Eisler’s fictional half-Japanese, half-American assassin for hire, spent his time in Vietnam, on joint military-CIA missions run by a clandestine outfit called the Studies and Observation Group (SOG).

“When I got the idea for the character (in 1993, when I was first living in Tokyo), I spent a lot of time thinking about where an assassin like Rain might come from, what would be his worldview, what would be his formative experiences,” Eisler recently told The Japan Times in an interview. “But what was missing, was a more comprehensive explanation, a clearer depiction of the crucible that forged Rain’s character and outlook. I found myself wondering whether there was one set of events that, more than any other, shaped Rain’s destiny. And I realized there was: what happened to him in love and war, and what he did during that long ago summer of 1972.”

Eisler’s latest thriller, “Graveyard of Memories” is that genesis story. Told in flashback, it follows how Rain made the transition from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the mean streets of Tokyo. As Eisler describes it, the Tokyo of the ’70s “didn’t have the same global center of gravity, the same feeling of being an undeniable major world megalopolis.”

By 1972, America’s involvement in the war in Indochina was winding down, and the 20-year-old Rain finds himself in Tokyo, where he spent his childhood years with his Japanese father and American mother. He finds work with the local CIA as a bagman, channeling bribes to Japanese officials. But upon returning from a drop, he’s confronted on the street by a trio of aggressive toughs. Unable to curb his killing instinct, Rain leaves one dead and another badly mauled — a case of literal overkill that turns out to be a serious mistake, as the dead thug was a nephew of the godfather of the “Gokumatsu-gumi,” the biggest yakuza syndicate in Japan, and a cousin of the gang’s heir apparent, “Mad Dog” Fukumoto.

Rain’s abrasive CIA handler, McGraw, advises him, “If you get your shit together and learn to control your temper, you have your whole life ahead of you, I don’t want to be the one who cuts it short.” The two strike a deal: Rain agrees to assassinate an important Japanese political figure and as quid pro quo, McGraw will help Rain eliminate the two Fukumotos, hopefully ending their threat. Running a gauntlet of deceit and betrayal, Rain’s fighting skills and survival instincts are then put to a harrowing test.

Seeking the anonymity of a local “love hotel” to avoid pursuing gangsters, Rain encounters Sayaka, a feisty paraplegic young woman who works the reception’s graveyard shift from a wheelchair. The two are gradually drawn into a bittersweet romantic sub-plot.

“For me,” explains Eisler, “Rain’s attempt to kill his way out of one set of problems so he can create space to have a life with this woman he’s falling in love with is the emotional and thematic crux of the book, and arguably of the character overall.”

“Why do Rain’s efforts to connect with people untainted by his experience with violence continually come to grief?” asks Eisler rhetorically. “Because there are things we do that we can’t wash our hands of, things that leave a residue and follow us like a tainted shadow. I think another lover of Rain’s, Midori Kawamura, put it well in ‘Extemis’ (the fifth Rain thriller published in 2006): ‘You’re trailing a poisonous wake, Jun. And every port you pull into, it washes up behind you.’”

In terms of sheer violence and intrigue, Tokyo may well rank below, say, Lisbon, Casablanca or East Berlin in thriller fiction, yet Rain’s exploits carry a ring of authenticity. Eisler himself previously worked for the CIA, and writes from personal experience, basing Rain on people he’s met over the years, both within and without the government, “who were,” as he puts it, “unusually comfortable and competent with violence.”

Other fictional characters who are Vietnam vets — such as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Robert Crais’ Joe Pike — have had a good run, but are inevitably starting to show their age, so I posed the question to Eisler: What’s ahead for Rain? Will he groom a young understudy and assume a managerial position?

“Well, Rain might have a few more stories from his formative days, for one thing,” Eisler predicts. “And yes, in my previous book, ‘The Detachment’ (2011), Rain found himself in the unlikely position of running a small group of killers on a job too complicated for a lone wolf. So that’s another possibility as well.”

Before the next episode in the Rain saga, however, Eisler’s says he’s working on a stand-alone novel set in the bowels of the national surveillance state. “My biggest challenge,” he says, “is staying ahead of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations, which have outpaced a lot of what even a year ago would have been dismissed as paranoid conspiracies.”