Barry Eisler’s thrillers about Tokyo-based John Rain, the conflicted, half-Japanese, half-American freelance assassin, are international bestsellers, translated into almost 20 languages, regularly winning awards and making year-end “best of” lists.
He’s been compared to John le Carré and Ian Fleming. The film rights have been optioned to Barrie Osborne, the Oscar-winning producer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
And the series, which started with Rain Fall in 2002, just seems to keep moving from strength to strength, as it tracks Rain’s evolution from the man he once was, an emotionless killing machine, to the man he wants to be, capable of love—and being loved. But this is no touchy-feely odyssey he’s on.
In fact, the sixth and latest, Requiem for an Assassin, may be the hardest-hitting yet. It’s a bruising global ride that finds the angst-ridden assassin in a race to save his friend Dox, the good ol’ boy, former Marine sniper previously introduced in Rain Storm. It’s a situation that would have been almost inconceivable at the beginning of the series, but Rain is no longer the friendless lethal weapon he once was. Nor have the seams in his carefully patched-together persona ever been so gloriously evident.
To rescue Dox from a rogue CIA operative and his team of killers, Rain may have to face a more deadly enemy than usual—namely himself. Rarely in thrillerdom have questions of duty and honor—and their emotional cost—been so sharply examined. And it’s all played against a high-tension cat-and-mouse game full of the diamond-hard action scenes, head-spinning plot twists and the insider vibe that Eisler is routinely and justly applauded for.
Now it turns out that Eisler comes by that vibe firsthand.
Barry was a spy.
Not that I’m Libbying anyone here, but after years of vague rumors about his past, Eisler himself—at the bequest of his publishers—applied to the CIA for a status change. Putnam figured it would make a good publicity hook.
And they were right. I mean, he writes novels full of international skullduggery. And he worked for the CIA. How cool is that?
Pretty cool, it turns out. Eisler spent three years as a case officer with the agency’s Directorate of Operations. “Mostly they trained me at the SOTC—Special Operations Training Course. Where else can you learn how to pilot small watercraft, conduct airdrops, fire off M-79 grenade launchers, and make improvised explosive devices? And get paid for it?”
But when pushed to elaborate, he tends to downplay his spy days. “I didn’t really do that much. I didn’t even carry a gun. Agency guys don’t usually need to carry guns,” he explains. “Except maybe in war zones or in dangerous cities like Beirut, Bogota, sometimes Manila...
“Despite its arguably sexy image,” he concludes, “the CIA can be a frustratingly bureaucratic place to work.”
He points out that he wasn’t even called a spy. Or an agent. “I was a case officer. In CIA-speak, ‘agents’ are the foreign nationals whom case officers recruit and run.” Barry explains. “Which is odd, given that CIA stands for Central Intelligence Agency. An agency with no agents? Only in the government...”
In fact, most of his tales out of school tend to focus on head-to-head battles with...bureaucracy. For example, during the background check process, Eisler had to take a lie detector test at a Virginia facility. They hooked him up to the gear: blood pressure monitor, respiration, skin conductivity, etc. The examiner, whom Eisler suspects was “selected for his utter lack of humor,” began by asking the standard questions, including the ever popular “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of an organization that seeks the violent overthrow of the US government?”
Nervous, Eisler tried to lighten the situation by cracking wise: “Heh...is there any way someone could answer ‘yes’ to that and still get the job?”
Eisler says the examiner looked at him as though he was “a bug.” Which of course just made him more nervous, so he blathered on. “You know, like, ‘Yes, but only as a high school prank,’ or, ‘Yes, but I was very drunk at the time and I quit the next day?’”
The examiner kept staring. Finally, Eisler surrendered. “Uh, no. Never.”
That humorless, bureaucratic mindset was pervasive. At one point, Eisler was rotated over to the Directorate of Intelligence to review the new Soviet constitution. This was the Glasnost era and there was a provision in the new constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press. In his analysis, he suggested that the provision wasn’t much of a departure. His supervisor became quite concerned, and called Eisler in.
Supervisor: You say that the new guarantee of freedom of the press isn’t important.
Eisler: It’s not, at least in and of itself. The Stalin-era constitution said the same thing. Maybe other changes will lead to actual freedom of the press in the Soviet Union, but the same old provision in the constitution isn’t one of them.
Supervisor: But this constitution guarantees freedom of the press.
Eisler: But so did Stalin’s. And the press wasn’t free then. Ergo, in the Soviet Union, a provision in the constitution, by itself, isn’t dispositive.
Supervisor: [pause] But this provision guarantees freedom of the press.
According to Eisler, it was “like the scene in Spinal Tap where Rob Reiner’s character can’t convince guitarist Nigel Tufnel that his new amplifier isn’t actually louder even though the new volume control now goes to 11. No matter how he tries to explain it, the guitarist just keeps saying, ‘But this one goes to 11....’”
It’s the sort of situation that would have the pragmatic Rain reaching for a gun. Or a piece of piano wire. Or any of the countless other materials, both exotic (Requiem boasts a great rescue-by-microwave scene) and prosaic (a tree branch), that he’s employed to such deadly use in the series—and that Eisler depicts with chilling verisimilitude.
He credits Uncle Sam for his getting the operator mindset and tactics right. “After all, I was trained by, and worked with these people,” he confesses. “But I also came away with a notion of the government’s limitations and its dysfunctions.”
“Yes. A lot of thrillers are predicated on the idea of some grand conspiracy, which makes for fun fiction, but honestly? Most governments aren’t competent enough to launch and maintain a good conspiracy. The left hand often doesn’t know what the right is doing, far more often than most people realize. Which is why my books tend to focus on the actions of smaller groups, not on government-wide actors.
“As the saying goes: never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.... I try to integrate what’s going on in the real world with Rain’s world. Of course, occasionally, a reader objects,” Eisler admits. “But if they can get past the fact that he kills people for a living, you’d think they could get past the fact that he takes a rather cynical view of the current White House crew, right?”
Eisler, a self-confessed news and politics junkie, is only slightly less outspoken on The Heart of the Matter, his own blog where he attempts to maintain a respectful balance between dissenting camps—a measured, common-sense approach that’s something of a rarity in these increasingly polarized times. As he points out, “I’m sick of flame wars that pass as political discussion, and all the entertainers like Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Michael Moore, and Bill O’Reilly posing as pundits. Calling your political opponents ‘big fat idiots’ or ‘treasonous’ or distorting their statements to fit your diatribe is a great way to sell books, speeches, talk shows, and movies. But that kind of nonsense never enlightens and it never persuades.”
Which may be another factor in the books’ success—Rain may be a killer-for-hire, but he always strives, in his own twisted, tortured way, to take the high road. It’s just one reason he’s such a compelling figure. Another is that Rain’s half-Japanese, half-American heritage makes him a perpetual outsider. When I told Eisler how I felt this was a masterstroke on his part, he shrugged it off.
“I wish I could claim some ingenious insight, but the truth is that originally Rain was a white guy. My agent, Nat Sobel, thought the manuscript had promise, but he couldn’t buy a white guy blending in Tokyo the way Rain did. 'Could he be Japanese?' Nat suggested. But that didn’t feel right either so I compromised. I said, 'Maybe he could be half...' and bam! That was one of those moments where the light bulb goes on over your head.”
“But Rain isn’t really half Japanese or half American,” Eisler is quick to say. “He’s actually completely each. If you met him in the States, other than his Japanese features (which he inherited from his father and had augmented with plastic surgery to make it easier to blend in), you’d assume he was born and bred in America. His English is idiomatic, his accent native, his range of cultural references complete. Likewise in Japan you’d never guess that he was anything other than just another local. This experience of essentially having two souls fascinates me—imagine the phenomenal perspective it must confer. His experience is so paradoxically alienating: he’s fully both, and yet feels truly neither.”
That could be Rain’s motto: Both and yet neither. But even more than his ethnicity, it’s his emotional and existential journey that drives the series—particularly in his latest outing.
Eisler agrees. “A few readers seemed to prefer the more cold-blooded, ruthless Rain of the first book, but what interests me is the way he’s trying to change in response to what he experiences, the way he’s developing. In Requiem for an Assassin all the progress he’s made is erased in a stroke when Dox is kidnapped. Rain snaps all the way back into killing machine mode. But he’s not a loner anymore, and the stress of reverting to his former ways to save Dox—while trying to maintain a relationship with his lover, Israeli agent Delilah—is tearing him apart.
“If there’s an overarching theme to the series, it’s the question of whether Rain can be redeemed for the life he’s led, and the lives he’s taken, or whether he’s irrevocably damned. I don’t know the answer, but until Rain finds out, the story isn’t over.”
Which is good news for his fans all over the world. Eisler is surprised at how well they’ve done in the Netherlands, and he’s pleased—and relieved—at how positive the Japanese reaction has been, given that the books pull no punches in their examination of corruption in Japanese society. “I guess they can sense my genuine enthusiasm for their culture beyond the criticism.”
When asked where that enthusiasm came from, he admits it’s a spin-off from his early interest in martial arts. “I grew up in suburban New Jersey. My father was a salesman, an entrepreneur who never worked for anyone else in his life; my mother was an artist, a homemaker, and even a bit of visionary on what’s now called climate change.
“I was hooked on books, always loved reading and writing. I used to write horror stories about vampires and werewolves while staying with my grandparents on the shore every summer. It was just a good, ordinary childhood.”
He pauses. “Except I got picked on a lot and I wanted to learn how to defend myself. I started wrestling in high school and loved it. Of course, I soon learned that when it comes to confrontations, martial arts aren’t necessarily the solution. But if all else fails, it’s a good insurance policy.”
In college, he met two Japanese business school students who were both fourth dan judoka from the Kodokan International Judo Center, where some of the world’s best judoka study. They were interested in wrestling and Eisler was by now interested in judo. They started working out together. Eisler was also training in karate at the time, and his burgeoning interest in budo soon grew to a more general interest in Japanese history and culture. Eventually, he decided that the only way to completely indulge that interest would be to live in the country.
It took a while, though. After college he took law at Cornell University and “fell in love” with Ithaca, New York, staying for the seven-year program. And then the CIA beckoned. Eisler hoped for a posting to Japan but mounting delays and a growing frustration with the agency’s bureaucracy convinced him to find his own way across the Pacific. He joined the DC office of a New York-based private law firm and eventually took a leave of absence to work with a Tokyo law firm.
“But none of this really explains the feeling I had when I first stepped off the train in Tokyo,” he says. “It was absolute metropolitan love at first sight, and it’s never gone away. I hope it never does.”
By this point, Eisler was in his early 30s, working on the manuscript that would become Rain Fall, but it never occurred to him that he’d be a writer. “Which is embarrassing,” he confesses. “I’d always liked writing. I was always good at it...so why did it take me so long to try to make a living from it?”
He drew on early literary influences ranging from Stephen King and Andrew Vachss, to Judy Blume (“I’m serious! I loved the sex scenes in Forever!”), as well as an obsession with Harry Houdini. “I was about ten when I read a biography where a cop says how fortunate it was that Houdini didn’t turn to a life of crime because he would have been difficult to catch and impossible to hold. I was fascinated by that—that Houdini had managed to gain this ‘forbidden knowledge.’”
The work of such former-intelligence-ops-turned-writers as Fleming and le Carré also played a part; a fact Eisler readily acknowledges in the introduction he wrote for an upcoming reprint of Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only: “What fascinated me as a teenager about James Bond was that he would willingly commit the ultimate crime—killing—and yet remain one of the good guys. Probably no coincidence, then, that I write the same kind of character. Or that I was drawn to the CIA...
“And I’ve always admired how le Carré used his experience not just to craft great spy stories, but to examine what makes us human. I think all authors start off unconsciously trying to imitate other writers they love but eventually, hopefully, imitation fades to influence and your own voice starts to come through.”
For Eisler, that voice includes a certain verisimilitude of which he’s rather proud. “A large part of my ‘brand’ is realism. Except for a way of tapping into a cordless phone in the first book that I made up, all the technology in the books is real. I learned my lesson—anything that I change or extrapolate, I now call out in an author’s note. The jazz clubs, whisky bars, streets, and other locations—they’re all exactly as I find them in on-site research. The martial arts sequences, the tradecraft and operator mindset, it’s all based on my own experience.”
Currently, Eisler lives in the Bay Area with his wife and daughter, but he foresees an eventual return to Japan. “Our daughter’s crazy about anime and manga. She loved it when we took her to visit last year.”
Right now, though, he’s working on a standalone thriller and “having a blast.” Not that fans need be too concerned. Eisler’s already contemplating another book, although this time he’s considering a story driven more by Dox or Delilah, with Rain in a supporting role.
I asked what has surprised him the most about writing fiction, and his response was immediate.
“How the stories just keep coming. Thank God...”
A BARRY EISLER READING LIST
The John Rain Novels
Rain Fall, 2002
Hard Rain (UK: Blood From Blood), 2003
Rain Storm (UK: Choke Point), 2004
Killing Rain (UK: One Last Kill), 2005
The Last Assassin, 2006
Requiem for an Assassin, 2007
The Detachment, forthcoming October 2011
The Ben Treven Novels
Fault Line, 2009
Inside Out, 2010
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #100.