Barry Eisler on The Last Assassin
You can’t imagine the impact of knowing that the most precious thing over which you have full control – your own life – is useless as barter or bribe to save the life of your child.
Thus does John Rain learn at the end of One Last Kill, the fourth book in the award-winning series about the half-American, half-Japanese freelance assassin, that he fathered a son during his brief and doomed relationship with Japanese jazz pianist Midori Kawamura. Midori and the child are living in New York City, and are being watched by Yamaoto, a powerful enemy of Rain’s from earlier in the series, who is hoping to use them to gain access to Rain.
The news throws Rain’s world into turmoil. Does the existence of a child mean some slim chance for reconciliation with Midori, whose father Rain killed in the opening pages of Rain Fall? How can he see them if they’re being watched by Yamaoto, and does he dare take the chance? And what does the news portend for Rain’s relationship with Delilah, the beautiful Mossad agent he met in Choke Point, the third book in the series, with whom he has since been drawing closer and closer despite their sometimes conflicting professional affiliations?
I suppose it was inevitable that issues of parenthood would creep into the series; after all, it wasn’t so long ago that I became a parent myself. I found myself wondering what Rain would do if he learned he had a child, and even more so how far he would go if the child were in danger. But not just any danger. It had to be danger of Rain’s own making.
Why? First, because one of the themes of the book, indeed of the series, is the inevitability of the continuing consequences of violence. Second, because the plot would be tighter and more satisfying if Rain caused the problem he now has to solve. Finally, and most importantly, because the stakes are dramatically higher if the situation is Rain’s fault.
In the first four Rain books, the stakes, generally speaking, are Rain’s life. In The Last Assassin, Rain’s life, although in constant danger, hardly matters to him — in fact, he would gladly trade it to protect his child. And the harder Rain tries, the worse the threat to the child becomes, such that you can think of the plot line of the book as a series of increasingly desperate double-or-nothing bets Rain is forced to gamble, with his son’s life and his own soul the stakes of the game.
My interest in those stakes and what a parent would do if forced to play for them became first the backbone, and finally the heart of the new book. The flesh, as ever, is suspense and action; realistic tradecraft and other operator tactics; evocative locations, in this case Barcelona, New York, Tokyo, and Wajima (yes, I had to do all the on-site research again, but I try not to complain… anything for my art, you know); steamy sex; most of all, a fascinating ensemble of characters led by Rain himself, a “multifaceted killer with the soul of a poet” (Mystery Ink Online).
The Rain who will take you through this book isn’t the same man we met (seemingly so long ago!) in Rain Fall. Rain is aging, for one thing, and as he does so his priorities begin to shift. His outlook changes, too, in reaction to the loves he’s known and losses he’s endured throughout the series. Most of all, Rain isn’t the loner he was, nor does he want to be. But building a clan — his lover Delilah, his partner and friend, former Marine sniper Dox — presents its own dangers to a man used to freedom of maneuver. As Rain notes in the opening of the book when he reconnoiters Barcelona before meeting Delilah there, “Barcelona was unfamiliar, but the real territory I was trying to navigate isn’t marked on any map.” That new territory, and Rain’s attempt to find his way safely through it, is the story of The Last Assassin. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Barry Eisler thinks his career has downsized over the years, and we’re very happy that it has. In our exclusive interview Barry talks about John Rain, where he got the idea for the death by ‘natural causes’ theme from and why Rain seems to appeal to the women.
What was the genesis of the character of John Rain?I have a long-standing interest in what I like to think of as “forbidden knowledge:” methods of unarmed killing, lock picking, breaking and entry, spy stuff, and other things that the government wants only a few select individuals to know. When I was a kid I read a biography of Harry Houdini, and in the book a cop was quoted as saying, “It’s fortunate that Houdini never turned to a life a crime, because if he had he would have been difficult to catch and impossible to hold.” I remember thinking how cool it was that this man knew things that people weren’t supposed to know, things that gave him special power. Anyway, since then I’ve amassed a small and unusual library on some of the foregoing and on other esoteric subjects. I think a lot of this must have been building up in my mind like dry tinder, waiting for the spark which life in Tokyo came to provide. While I was there commuting to work one morning, a vivid image came to me of two men following another man down Dogenzaka street in Shibuya. I still don’t know where the image came from, but I started thinking about it. Who are these men? Why are they following that other guy? Then answers started to come: They’re assassins. They’re going to kill him. But these answers just let to more questions: why are they going to kill him? What did he do? Who do they work for? It felt like a story, somehow, so I started writing, and that was the birth of John Rain and Rain Fall.
What do you think it is it about a grim, friendless loner with no sense of humor who happens to be a cold blooded killer that appeals to readers?You’ve keyed on an important point here, because it certainly is a challenge to make a killer like Rain sympathetic and (dare I say it?) even likeable! First, when we experience a character in a novel, we experience him or her not in isolation, but rather by reference to his or her surroundings. So Rain may be a bad man, but within the corrupt, duplicitous world in which he finds himself, he’s actually pretty good. He has a code (no women or children, no acts against non-principals); he has a conscience (he’s troubled by some of what he does); he’s good to his few friends (Harry and Tatsu). This relativity allows us to like Rain. By the way, I think the best example of this way of making a bad guy into the good guy is Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, where the Don comes across as the most admirable character in the book. Sure, he’s an organized crime boss and murderer, but within the book’s overall setting that’s all just a given. What really matters is that the Don is a family man, is straight-laced about sex, won’t sell drugs, and is relied on and trusted by his community. In a sense, Puzo turns upside down the ordinary moral universe that we take for granted – an amazing case of authorial slight of hand.
Also, at times you get a peek at Rain’s past — his initial killing experience in Vietnam, for example — which makes him much more real to the reader. Real means understandable, and understandable means, possibly, sympathetic. You come to understand not only the events that have shaped Rain; you also are privy to his thoughts and feelings about these events — his guilt, his remorse, his regret. Hopefully one comes away from this with a sense that, des