Books Cited or Discussed in This Essay:
Eisler, Barry. The Last Assassin. New York: Putnam, 2006. (LA)
Bourne, Randolph S. War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays, 1915-1919, ed., Carl Resek. New York: Harper, 1964.
Eisler, Barry. Rain Fall. New York: Putnam, 2002. (RF)
—. Hard Rain. New York: Putnam, 2003. (HR)
—. Rain Storm. New York: Putnam, 2004. (RS)
—. Killing Rain. New York: Putnam, 2005. (KR)
It’s truly a bummer when you find yourself wishing the best series character in contemporary crime fiction would get himself whacked. And there can be little doubt that hired assassin John Rain is the best series character in contemporary crime fiction. He’s intelligent, cosmopolitan, a man of considerable refinement, a man appreciative of the perks of civilization. Think a Japanese-American version of Sean Connery’s version of James Bond. Rain is a superb craftsman in his work, creating deaths that appear to have resulted from “natural causes,” expecting nothing less than perfection from himself and the few close associates with whom he sometimes works — and tolerating no excuses for “inferior” performance. His mind is subtle and complex; he is thoughtful, if not exactly intellectual; and he reflects often on the events of his past and thinks frequently about the moral implications of his actions then and now.
A “contract killer with a conscience,” Entertainment Weekly calls him, but he is far more than that. He is a contract killer who is getting a little too old to sustain his personal and professional lifestyle. An athlete in a contact sport who manages to hang onto major league status much past the age of forty is a rare bird. Rain is now past fifty. He’s beginning to slip. He’s beginning to find his own performance standards impossible to live up to. Worse yet, he’s finally beginning to rethink his rationale for getting into his unusual line of work in the first place — and for staying in it all these years. He’s beginning to consider whether retirement might not be a bad idea.
The man who calls himself John Rain was born Fujiwara Junichi in Tokyo in the early 1950s, the son of an American mother, “a State Department staff lawyer in occupation Tokyo with MacArthur’s Supreme Command of Allied Powers, part of the team MacArthur charged with drafting a new constitution to guide postwar Japan into the coming American Century,” and a Japanese father, a member of “Prime Minister Yoshida’s staff, responsible for translating and negotiating the document on terms favorable to Japan.” (RF 66, 38) When “[t]heir romance became public shortly after the new constitution was signed into law in May 1947,” the revelation “scandalized both camps, each of which was convinced that its representative must have made concessions on the pillow that could never have been achieved at the negotiating table. My mother’s future with the State Department was effectively ended, and she remained in Japan as my father’s wife.” (RF 39)
Thirteen years later, when young Junichi was eight years old, his father was “killed by a rightist in the street demonstrations that rocked Tokyo when the Kishi administration ratified the 1960 U.S./Japan Security Pact.” (RF 38) His mother, at the time of her marriage, had “adopted Japan, learning Japanese well enough to speak it at home with my father and with me.” (RF 39) Now, her husband dead, she takes her young son “back to the States. […] We settled in a town called Dryden in upstate New York, where she took a job as a Japanese instructor at nearby Cornell University and I enrolled in public school.” (RF 50)
John Rain graduates from high school at seventeen and, with his seventeen-year-old best friend, enlists in the U.S. Army. “I remember the recruiter telling us we would need parental permission to join. ‘See that woman outside?’ he had asked us. ‘Give her this twenty, ask her if she’ll sign as your mother.’ She did. Later, I realized this woman was making her living this way.” (RF 31) Rain makes it through both basic training and Special Forces training, then finds himself assigned to “a joint military-CIA program called the Studies and Observation Group, or SOG. The Studies and Observation moniker was a joke, some idiot bureaucrat’s attempt to give the organization a low profile. You might as well name a pit bull Pansy.”
“SOG’s mission,” Rain tells us, “was clandestine reconnaissance and sabotage missions into Cambodia and Laos, sometimes even into North Vietnam.” He and his comrades “were operating in Cambodia at the same time Nixon was publicly pledging respect for Cambodia’s neutrality.” They “were the elite of the elite, small and mobile, slipping like silent ghosts through the jungle. All the moving parts on the weapons were taped down for noise suppression. We operated so much at night that we could see in the dark. We didn’t even use bug repellent because the VC could smell it. We were that serious.” (RF 32)
They were serious about their moral status, too. “[W]e talked about what we would and wouldn’t do. We’d heard the stories. Everyone knew about My Lai. We were going to keep cool heads, stay professional. Keep our innocence, really. I can almost laugh, when I think about it now.” (RF 33) Then “one day you’re moving through a village with the power of life and death slung over your shoulder, sweeping back and forth, back and forth, muzzle forward. You’re in a declared free-fire zone, meaning anyone who isn’t a confirmed friendly is assumed to be Vietcong and treated accordingly. And intel tells you this village is a hotbed of V.C. activity, they’re feeding half the sector, they’re a conduit for arms that are flowing down the Trail. The people are giving you sullen looks, and some mama-san says, ‘Hey, Joe, you fuck mommie, you number ten,’ some shit like that. I mean, you’ve got the intel. And two hours earlier you lost another buddy to a booby trap. Believe me, someone is going to pay.” (RF 155-156)
On the day Rain and his SOG team enter the village of Cu Lai, the residents pay — heavily. “We herded all the people together, maybe forty or fifty people, including women and children. We burned their homes down right in front of them. We shot all their farm animals, massacred the pigs and cows.” Then, uncertain — “what were we supposed to do with these people? We had just destroyed their village” — Rain radios for further orders.
“The guy on the other end of the radio, I still don’t know who, says, ‘Waste ‘em.’ […] I say ‘Waste who?’ He says, ‘All of ‘em. Everybody,’ I say, ‘We’re talking about forty, fifty people here, some women and children, too. Do you understand that?’ The guy says again, ‘Just waste ‘em.’ ‘Can I have your name and rank?’ I say, because suddenly I’m not going to kill all these people just because a voice over the radio tells me to. ‘Son,’ the voice says, ‘I assure you if I told you my rank you’d shit your pants for me. You are in a declared free-fire zone. Now do as I say.”
Rain refuses the order “without being able to verify his authority. Then two more people, who claimed to be this guy’s superiors, got on the radio. One of them says, ‘You have been given a direct order under the authority of the Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces. Obey this order or suffer the consequences.’” Rain conveys the order to his teammates. “For most of the guys, it had the same effect it had on me: it cooled them down, scared them. But some of them it excited. ‘No fucking way,’ they were saying. ‘They’re telling us to waste’em? Far out.’ Still, everyone was hesitating.”
Then one of guys who got excited and said “No fucking way,” stops hesitating. He “just steps back, shoulders his rifle, then ka-pop! ka-pop! he starts shooting them. It was weird; no one tried to run away. Then one of the other guys […] shoulders his rifle, too. The next thing I knew we were all unloading our clips into these people, just blowing them apart. Clip runs out, press, slide, click, you put in a new clip and fire some more.”
“If I could go back in time,” Rain tells a rare confidante, “I would try to stop it. I really would. I wouldn’t participate. And the memories dog me. I’ve been running for twenty-five years, but in the end, it’s like trying to lose a shadow.” (RF 156-157) “There are things you do,” he tells another confidante, “that you can’t wash off afterward.” (RS 180) Want to know the hardest part about killing? Rain asks rhetorically in the fourth novel in the series. “The part that you can’t plan for, that you can only really understand when it’s already too late? Living with it after. Bearing up under the weight of what you’ve done.” (KR 3)
John Rain, perfectionist that he has always been, will not forgive himself for what he has done. He believes himself worthy of only the most contemptible work, believes he deserves to be shunned by civilized people. He goes his own way, living alone, in the shadows, avoiding human contact. He is, in many ways, reminiscent of a stoic Randian hero (Hank Rearden, perhaps?) filled with self-reproach, not permitting himself what he considers the undeserved, endlessly punishing himself.
Not even the war’s end a few years after the massacre at Cu Lai brought Rain any sense of closure. “All the things I’d done made sense in war, they were justified by war, I couldn’t live with them outside of war. So I needed to stay at war.” (RF 159)
And so he has. “I’m not a mercenary,” he writes, “although I was nothing more than that once upon a time. And although I do in a sense live a life of service, I am no longer samurai, either. The essence of samurai is not just service, but loyalty to his master, to a cause greater than himself. There was a time when I burned with loyalty, a time when, suffused with the samurai ethic I had absorbed from escapist novels and comics as a boy in Japan, I was prepared to die in the service of my adopted liege lord, the United States. But loves as uncritical and unrequited as that one can never last, and usually come to a dramatic end, as mine did. I am a realist now.”
Tatsu, Rain’s longtime friend and mentor from the Keisatsucho, the Japanese national police agency, tells him that “at heart you are samurai. In Vietnam you thought you had found your master, your cause larger than yourself. […] You were not the same man when we met again in Japan after the war. Your master must have disappointed you terribly for you to have become ronin.” A ronin, Rain remarks, “is literally a floater on the waves, a person with no direction. A masterless samurai.” (RF 8, 295)
Now Rain serves many masters, but only so long as they pay him, only so long as “the alignment of [their] interests” holds, and no longer. (HR 35) In fact, Rain is so “masterless” these days that he refuses to serve even a paying customer unless that paying customer observes Rain’s rules. “Is the target a man? I don’t work against women or children. Have you retained anyone else to solve this problem? I don’t want my operation getting tripped up by someone’s idea of a B-team, and if you retain me, it’s an exclusive. Is the target a principal? I solve problems directly, like the soldier I once was, not by sending messages through uninvolved third parties like a terrorist. […] I like to see independent evidence […] that the target is indeed the principal and not a clueless innocent.” (RF 7-8)
If the terms of Rain’s service have changed, so have his looks. “I’ve had surgery to give my somewhat stunted epicanthic folds a more complete Japanese appearance. I wear my hair longer now, as well, in contrast to the brush cut I favored back then. And wire-rim glasses, a concession to age and its consequences, give me a bookish air that is entirely unlike the intense soldier’s countenance of my past. Today I look more like a Japanese academic than the half-breed warrior I once was.” (RF 20)
Whatever he looks like, however, he remains a warrior. He remains at war. For, as Randolph Bourne noted in 1918, “it is not too much to say that the normal relation of States is war. Diplomacy is a disguised war, in which States seek to gain by barter and intrigue, by the cleverness of wits, the objectives which they would have to gain more clumsily by means of war. Diplomacy is used while the States are recuperating from conflicts in which they have exhausted themselves. It is the wheedling and the bargaining of the worn-out bullies as they rise from the ground and slowly restore their strength to begin fighting again.” (86) Rain is the sort of soldier the State employs during times of “peace.” Whether he is working for the CIA, the Mossad, or one of Japan’s political parties, he is always working for State officials carrying out their brand of diplomacy — war by other means.
There is irony in this, for Rain is no admirer of the State. Visiting the once beautiful city of Kyoto, and witnessing the damage done by urban renewal, “I smiled without mirth, thinking that, if any of this had been mine, I would have taken better care of it. This is what you get if you put your trust in the government, I thought. People ought to know better.” (HR 101) Still, Rain believes he has disqualified himself for civilized work, for life among civilized people. He imposes his profession on himself like a prison sentence. He continues to labor in the vineyards of the deceiving, desecrating, destroying State.
Rain will never believe in any cause again. He’ll never again believe in anything but himself. “[W]hat difference does it make, what you believe?” he asks an associate. Things are what they are.” (KR 110) And the reality of his situation, as he sees it, is that the States of the world are permanently at war, and war is hell. “[I]s it moral to kill someone you don’t even know, a grunt probably just like yourself, just because the government says you can? Or you drop a bomb from thirty thousand feet to kill the bad guys, you bury women and children under the rubble of their own homes in the process, but you’re not bothered because you didn’t actually have to see the damage, that’s moral? I don’t hide behind mortar range, or behind the cartoon image in the thermal scope of a sniper’s rifle, or behind the medals they give you afterward to reassure you that the slaughter was just. All that shit is an illusion, a soporific fed to killers to anesthetize them after they’ve killed. What I do is no worse than what goes on all over the world, what has always gone on. The diffference is that I’m honest about it.” (HR 223-224)
As has been noted, another difference between the Rain of today and the Rain of his military days is that the Rain of today is no longer in his late teens and early twenties. “The long healing process was probably good for me,” he writes at the end of Rain Storm, his third fictional adventure. “It reinforced something I needed to come to grips with: I was getting older. Time was, I would have ripped through a guy like Belghazi before he could have damaged me in return. But now, although my skills, my tactics, were better than those of my younger self, my quickness, and my resiliency, were declining. If I had been working alone that night at Kwai Chung, as I ordinarily do, I would have died there.” (326)
By the time of The Last Assassin, his fifth fictional adventure, just published earlier this month (June 2006), Rain is working regularly with two partners: Dox, a former U.S. Marine sniper who now freelances, and Delilah, a Mossad agent who freelances on the side. For the first time in years, he’s packing. “I’d gotten used to carrying a knife in the last year or so,” he reports, “and no longer felt comfortable without something sharp close at hand.” (3) Also, for the first time in his life, he’s devoting at least as much time to operations meant to clean up messes his advancing age and his latent moral scruples have gotten him into as he’s devoting to paying jobs.
One of his new associates, Dox the sniper, is as cynical about the U.S. government as Rain himself. “America,” he says, “I mean, look at us, we’re always telling ourselves how peace-loving we are. ‘We’re a peace-loving people, we love peace.’ I guess that’s why we spend more on our military than the rest of the world combined, why we have over seven hundred overseas military bases in a hundred and thirty countries, and why we’ve been at war pretty much continuously since we were just a bunch of colonies. Shoot, you think if a Martian visited Earth and tried to identify the most peace-loving culture, he’d pick the U.S. of A.? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, mind you. We’re a warlike people, it’s obvious, we’re good at war and we like it. I just don’t know why we can’t admit it to ourselves. I bet sales of Prozac would go down if we could.” (LA 99)
Dox and Delilah — and “something sharp” — have helped Rain stay at the very top of his dangerous game into his early fifties, but age and the inescapable contradictions of his worldview (how, for example, can you punish yourself for doing evil by forcing yourself to do more evil?) are breeding his downfall. Artistically, the logic of the situation is inexorable — the contradictions must be brought to a head and resolved — Rain must confront his demons and slay (or be slain by) them.
Obviously, there is much here for the thoughtful reader to chew on. Rain is a character of genuine depth, a character whose adventures may profitably be re-read. These are books with a lot more going for them than just the reader’s desire to find out what happens next and how it all comes out. Rain is the best, the most interesting, series character now going in crime fiction.
He has worthy competitors, certainly. There’s John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway, the Denver cop turned antiquarian bookseller, each of whose “cases” involves a murder in the world of books, collectors, scouts, and dealers. Janeway is now in his fifth fictional adventure, The Bookwoman’s Last Fling, published in May (2006) by Scribner. There’s Dan Simmons’s Joe Kurtz, the Buffalo PI who lost his license and was sent to prison when he avenged the murder of his girlfriend, the mother of his child, by tossing a career criminal out of a third-story window. Kurtz is back in Buffalo now, watching his daughter from a safe and legal distance; he’s also back in business, though on the q.t. since he remains unlicensed and unlicensable. He hasn’t been heard from since Hard as Nails in 2003. There’s David J. Walker’s Mal Foley, the disbarred lawyer who conducts his own unlicensed investigations in Chicago — though he takes one night a week off, usually, to play jazz piano in a local bar. Like Kurtz, he’s been scarce lately; he hasn’t been heard of since No Show of Remorse in 2002. All three of these characters are multi-layered and compelling. All three of them are “voiced” by writers who, like Barry Eisler, are highly literate, even poetic — writers who know both what they’re talking about and how to use the English language effectively. But none of these characters, for my money, anyway, can measure up to John Rain — not quite, not fully.
I trust that no one will tell me at this point that I have my categories mixed up — that John Rain is not a character in crime fiction at all, but rather a character in “espionage fiction” or “thrillers,” that the pantheon Barry Eisler aspires to join is made up of writers like Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and John le Carre, not writers like Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Ross Macdonald. I do not buy into this traditional distinction. I regard it as a distinction without a difference. As Max Stirner famously put it, “The State calls its own violence law, but that of the individual crime.” To a libertarian, crime is crime, whether it is committed by civilians or by agents or officials of States. Agents and officials of States commit most of the crime that takes place on our planet, with the result that fictional stories about State-sponsored crime — war novels, espionage novels — tend to be less interesting, on balance, than fictional stories about civilians who turn to crime. The latter are more intrinsically novel, you might say. The former are usually far too mundane to hold the interest of any but the most unseasoned readers. If Cyril Connolly was right that “[l]iterature is the art of writing something that will be read twice,” then it may be said with confidence that far more genuine literature has been wrought by the tellers of tales of civilian crime than by the chroniclers of State agents with a “license to kill.” All the more remarkable, then, that Eisler should have achieved what he has with his John Rain novels.
Eisler himself gives evidence of holding libertarian or quasi-libertarian views. Not only do his characters make the somewhat jaundiced comments they do about government generally and the U.S. government in particular, but his characters read stuff that’s likely to lead them in an even more libertarian direction. At one point, Rain describes his small personal library: “a number of books on the bugei, or warrior arts, some of them quite old and obscure, containing information on combat techniques thought to be too dangerous for modern judo — spine locks, neck cranks, and the like — techniques that are, consequently, largely lost to the art. There are also some well-thumbed works of philosophy — Mishima, Musahi, Nietzsche. And there are a number of slim volumes that are illegal in Japan and in other countries lacking America’s perhaps overly strong devotion to freedom of speech, but which I manage to acquire nonetheless through techniques garnered from some of the volumes themselves. There are works on the latest surveillance methods and technologies; police investigative techniques and forensic science; acquiring forged identity; setting up offshore accounts and mail drops; methods of disguise and evasion; lock-picking and breaking and entry; and related topics.”
Any libertarian reader is going to look up from this inventory and say, “John Rain shops at [the late, surprisingly little lamented] Loompanics!” And so he does. Or, at least, his creator does. Or, at least, so it seems. I’ve had some correspondence with Barry Eisler, via e-mail, over the past couple of years, you see. I wrote to him originally in September of 2004 to tell him I was writing an article on his John Rain series for the late Bill Bradford’s Liberty magazine, which I characterized as “a small-circulation (around 10,000) monthly published in Port Townsend, Washington,” and to ask him a couple of questions about writers who might have influenced him. On September 15, 2004, he replied, in part: “Port Townsend … home of Loompanics, world’s most unusual book catalogue (not that I would ever know of such a catalogue or have read any of their books …).”
Not that all of Eisler’s impressive familiarity with the tradecraft of international crime comes out of books from Loompanics — he’s an attorney with a law degree from Cornell (the upstate New York atmosphere in those flashbacks is authentic) and a former covert operative for the CIA. “During his time with the Agency,” according to his website, “Eisler was trained in small arms, long arms, hand-to-hand combat, improvised explosive devices, small water craft, air drops to friendly forces, surveillance, counter-surveillance, counter-terrorism, agent recruitment and management, and interrogation and manipulation techniques.” No, the significance of Loompanics is simply what it tells us about the sorts of books Eisler and Rain have been exposed to. For the world’s most unusual book catalog offered dozens of books on anarchism as well as its volumes on crimecraft. If Eisler and Rain didn’t already have libertarian sympathies, the books they’d run into in the Loompanics catalogue could very well bring out such sympathies in both of them.
That Eisler has such sympathies is evident from his blog. In one recent entry, he described himself as “just a plain old, market-oriented conservative — a dying breed, it’s true, and so a quaint way to picture oneself, but that’s what I am. I trust markets to set prices and don’t trust governments when they interfere.” This is, of course, a libertarian sentiment, not a conservative one. Conservatives have no interest in markets, except when they run for office. Then they talk as though they, too, “trust markets to set prices and don’t trust governments when they interfere.” Their behavior once in office makes it clear, however, that their true commitment is to something else entirely: subsidies to favored interests, government regulation to benefit favored interests, wars to benefit favored interests. Eisler and Rain sound more like libertarians than like any conservatives I’ve ever encountered.
So why am I wishing Rain would get himself whacked? Because his agony is being unduly prolonged. I referred earlier to the inexorable logic of Rain’s situation and the fact that he needs either to slay his demons or succumb to them. Frankly, I don’t think he’ll ever quit his work. And I’m not alone in thinking that, either. Kawamura Midori, the Japanese jazz pianist who is Rain’s lost love and the mother of his child, tells a new acquaintance that her infant son’s father “lives in a different world than mine. I told him if he ever gets out of that world, he could call me then. But I don’t think he can get out of it. He’s been in it forever, and I actually think […] he likes it. I mean, he says he wants to get out, but if he really wanted to, he could, couldn’t he? And he’s had good reasons. The baby being the most recent.” (LA 124)
His partner, Dox, agrees. “You keep telling yourself you’re just trying to do the right thing,” he tells Rain, “or be with your family, or get out of the life, or whatever. But it always comes down to killing with you. Always. […] What I’m trying to say is, at some point, you should face up to your nature. I think you’d be more at peace with yourself if you would.” (LA 99) Rain himself has had not dissimilar thoughts, as this extended passage indicates:
But if Rain can’t quit, his steadily increasing age and his steadily growing scruples are going to do him in. There’s no way out of the situation.
The loss of John Rain himself would be irretrievable. And it would probably be met by as fierce a resistance from his fans as Conan Doyle faced in 1894, when, less than seven years after creating his most famous character, he attempted to kill off Sherlock Holmes by having him plunge to his apparent death over Reichenbach Falls with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Then, too, there’s the economic issue to consider: the Rain franchise is rapidly becoming a significant moneymaker. The novels have been translated into nearly twenty languages. Every year, Eisler’s publicity tour in support of his new Rain novel is longer than the year’s before. The John Rain saga has been optioned for film by Barrie Osborne, the Oscar-winning co-producer of The Lord of the Rings.
But it seems to me that Rain’s end is inescapable. For artistic justice to be done to Eisler’s original concept, he probably can’t last more than one more novel. Maybe it would be good for his story to be complete before he’s captured in cinematic form. Six novels is a nice, round number. C’mon, Barry! End this as stylishly and intelligently as you began and prolonged it. Let John Rain meet the destiny he has so painstakingly prepared for himself over the past thirty-odd years. It’s high time.
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