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Sunday, Aug. 21, 2005

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

HOW MANY ENCORES?

It's the eccentrics whose appeal endures


KILLING RAIN, by Barry Eisler. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2005, 337 pp., $24.95 (cloth).
BANGKOK TATTOO, by John Burdett. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, 304 pp., $24 (cloth).

While perhaps not as well known as Sherlock Holmes or Agent 007, pulp magazines and later paperback books featuring the intrepid secret agent Nick Carter lasted for roughly a century. Carter's publisher retained the copyright to the character, contracting several authors to submit manuscripts on a consignment basis.

A sure sign of success is when a character outlives his creator, as is the case with Bond, who since Ian Fleming's demise in 1964 has continued to appear in novels written by Kingsley Amis, John Gardner and others.

Sales of the James Bond novels, it is said, received an enormous boost from an endorsement by John F. Kennedy, who began reading the books after meeting Fleming at a cocktail party.

James Melville (nom de plume of British diplomat Peter Martin), creator of the Superintendent Otani mysteries set in Kobe, once related to me some of the pitfalls he confronted in keeping his series going. "You get to the point where you start developing plots in terms of how a character would respond to this or that situation," he complained, reflecting that when this happens, things become a bit "too cozy."

While Melville did concede that his characters "had become friends of mine," toward the series' end they began dying. "It was time he got killed off," Melville would explain matter-of-factly.

The two works under review, the fourth and second in their respective series, are still in relative infancy compared to other series. While I would be hesitant to make any predictions as to their longevity, their young writers have impressed me with their skills at stirring up a concoction of exotic plots, characters and settings.

In Barry Eisler's latest, "Killing Rain," half-Japanese martial arts expert and freelance assassin John Rain has become friendly with a lovely but deadly female member of the Israeli Mossad, who he encountered in the previous episode. The Israelis hire Rain to terminate a renegade who is offering his expertise in bomb-making to terrorists.

Rain, a killer with scruples, finds himself unable to murder his target while the man's young son looks on. While fleeing, he and his confederate, an ex-U.S. Marine sniper named Dox, are forced to engage in a deadly shootout with the man's two bodyguards, who turn out to be rogue CIA agents. To make matters even worse, the Israelis decide Rain is not to be trusted, and suddenly the hunter becomes the hunted.

Moving between the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan, "Killing Rain" shows a new, human side to Eisler's heretofore ruthless character. One can only hope Rain is not mellowing -- in his line of work, a display of sentiment would almost certainly prove fatal. And definitely not conducive to a long-running series.

The Wild East

As far as opening lines go, "Killing customers just isn't good for business" is not bad at all.

After proving his mettle in "Bangkok 8," Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep of the Royal Thai Police Force is back. His mother Nong, a former prostitute, operates a bar-cum-brothel called the Old Man's Club, where middle-aged farangs -- as non-Thais are referred to -- come to pop Viagra and revive their flagging sex lives with sylphlike bar girls. Police Colonel Vikorn, Sonchai's boss and principal owner of the club, is distracted from his business ventures -- and a deadly turf war with the equally corrupt Thai Army -- in order to deal with a high-priority murder case.

The victim, Mitch Turner, was a naive young CIA operative assigned, as part of America's post-9/11 intelligence activities, to keep an eye on fundamentalist Muslims in southern Thailand, where he stuck out like a sore thumb. The Muslims resented his presence, but ironically, wound up protecting him, since his getting killed would obviously invite the wrath of Uncle Sam.

Turner, however, was not killed in Southern Thailand, but in a Bangkok hotel. And Chanya, the star hostess at Sonchai's mother's club, confesses to the crime, although she was too stoned on opium to recall any details. Sonchai's investigation reveals that Chanya and Turner had met before, during her sojourn in the United States. In fact Turner had even proposed marriage; but as a straitlaced born-again Christian, he was having difficulties sorting out his relationship with a Buddhist and professional hooker to boot.

Chanya's confession to the killing is suspect, as Turner's body was mutilated in way that confounds the investigators. The solution is not satisfactorily addressed until a mysterious Japanese suddenly pops up from out of nowhere, a sleight of hand that I feel makes the story bit too contrived.

Burdett's black humor, memorably eccentric characters and exotic locales are highly appealing, as is his unconventional narrative delivered in the first person by a philosophical Asian cop. Still, he'll need to stay within the conventions of the mystery genre if he is to keep readers coming back for more.



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