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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Vietvets come in from the cold war

THE LAST ASSASSIN by Barry Eisler. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2006, 334 pp., $24.95 (cloth).
WHITE TIGER by Michael Allen Dymmoch. St. Martin's Minotaur, 2005, 308 pp., $24.95 (cloth).
THE TUNNEL RATS by Stephen Leather. Hodder and Stoughton, 2005, 501 pp., £6.99 (paper).

John Rain, Barry Eisler's American-Japanese hit man for hire, makes his fifth appearance -- but hopefully not the last -- in "The Last Assassin." After deadly sojourns around Southeast Asia and on other continents, the Rain saga has come full circle, with surviving characters from Eisler's first work, plus new additions, converging on Japan.

If Rain hadn't mixed business with pleasure, his life wouldn't be quite so complicated. But he learns he had fathered a son by a Japanese woman, Midori, whose own father Rain had been hired to terminate in his debut appearance. Rain subsequently saved Midori's life and she moved to New York, where she works as a jazz pianist. But Rain's nemesis, powerful gang leader Yamaoto, is convinced that putting a watch on Midori will eventually lead him to Rain.

To protect his former lover and their baby son, Rain sets out to wreck the partnership between Yamaoto's gang and that of Big Liu, his Taiwanese drug connection. This is done with the tacit approval and partial assistance of Tatsu, Rain's high-ranking friend in Japan's National Police Agency. Rain, it seems, is so accomplished at killing people that governments are his best customers.

Rain, who fought in Vietnam (which means he's got to be at least 50 now), works with two loyal comrades in arms -- "Dox," a former U.S. Marine sniper and Delilah, a beautiful but deadly Israeli Mossad agent he first met, and nearly killed, in Macau several books ago. Delilah infiltrates a high-class Omote-sando cathouse and the book climaxes in a violent yakuza shootout that would do justice to a Ken Takakura film.

Earlier, Rain intercepted a secret drug deal at an isolated port on the Sea of Japan, at which time he came to blows with two supersized ex-sumo wrestlers -- such a cliched situation that I'd normally be moved to slam a book shut at that point. I've become increasingly intolerant, moreover, of mystery and thriller writers' growing tendency to dwell too heavily on their protagonists' personal lives at the expense of plot. It may be a true sign of Eisler's craft, however, that Rain's sumo brawls, romantic antics and emotional encounter with fatherhood somehow merge seamlessly onto the narrative, perhaps even to the point of enhancing it.

Little Saigons

America's overseas wars inevitably generate fiction that involves men who return from battle with psychological traumas, war brides and old secrets they hope to keep hidden.

Once upon a time in Saigon lived a ruthless war profiteer known as Cop Trang -- "White Tiger." No one seemed to know who he was, and even three decades later and on a different continent, Cop Trang is still killing to keep his identity a secret.

Chicago detective John Thinnes and his friend, psychologist Jack Caleb, both Vietnam veterans, join forces to track down the killer. By incredible coincidence one murder suspect, a mixed-blood man whose mother is of one of White Tiger's most recent victims, may possibly be Thinnes' natural son.

While set in present-day Chicago, White Tiger's narrative is interspersed with some realistic flashbacks that show author Dymmoch extensively researched the war and its aftermath.

The main flaw in "The Tunnel Rats" is not so much weak research as a complete lack of plausibility. The re-issue of this book, first published in 1997, has Sgt. Nick Wright of the British Transport Police investigating the murder of a man in an abandoned London subway tunnel. The man is finally identified as an American news photographer. Soon thereafter the victim's Asian wife goes missing. When Wright learns of the murder of another American in Thailand under similar circumstances, he flies off to Bangkok, and from there to Saigon, to probe the involvement of former "tunnel rats," men who volunteered for one of the most risky jobs in the Vietnam war -- engaging the enemy in his huge, booby-trapped underground tunnel network.

Eventually the British cop finds himself entering one such tunnel complex in Vietnam in search of the killer, while being pursued by another, even more ruthless killer, who is prepared to eliminate everyone to conceal a wartime atrocity.

With no disrespect intended to Sgt. Wright, it's rare to see the hero of a book so totally outclassed -- in this case by his own fellow British cops, by the Yank veterans and by not one but two criminals operating under separate motives.

Those in search of the ultimate work on the theme of Vietnamese revanchisme, by the way, might want to obtain Charles McCarry's "The Tears of Autumn," which attributes the Kennedy assassination to American involvement in the overthrow and assassination of South Vietnam's prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, on Nov. 2, 1963 -- 20 days before Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. First released in 1975, it was republished by Outlook Hardcover last year.

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