Summer Lit Issue:
'Requiem for an Assassin' | 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' | 'Lime Kiln Legacies' | 'Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl' | 'After Dark' | Literary shorts | 'The Other End' | Harry Potter | 'Red Eye, Black Eye' and 'Gangster Film Reader'
Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
High-Tech Spy Game
Barry Eisler used to work for the CIA; now he writes bestselling books about John Rain, an international hit man in exotic locales. His latest thriller, 'Requiem for an Assassin,' raises troubling issues about the limitless ability to snoop on anybody, anywhere, anytime.
By Gary Singh
Bay Area author Barry Eisler has just unleashed Requiem for an Assassin, the sixth book in his now world-renowned series about John Rain, a Japanese-American freelance killer who slithers through exotic locales and murders people while making it look like the person died of natural causes.
Eisler himself comes from a wide background that completely, overwhelmingly drives the books. For example, as a member of the Central Intelligence Agency's Directorate of Operations, he studied everything you would expect someone to have studied in that branch of the CIA, and it all shows up in the novels: surveillance, countersurveillance, betrayals of relationships, interrogation, improvised weaponry and clandestine operations. He only recently changed his status and revealed to the public that he worked for the agency.
I recently hooked up with Eisler, primarily because if there's going to be a book featuring a scene where a half-Eastern half-Western assassin rampages through familiar Northern California haunts like Palo Alto, ridicules the yuppies and brutally bumps off a corporate CEO in the dark, I just had to go yak with the author.
METRO SANTA CRUZ: In these books, you've got two things that just automatically intrigue the general public: exotic locales and spooks. Where did the impetus for the series come from?
EISLER: I was living in Tokyo and an image came to me of two men following another man down the street ... and I started thinking about it, and I said, who are these guys? Why are they following that other guy? And I thought: They're assassins. They're going to kill him. And I thought, who are they, why are they going to kill him, who hired them, where did they come from? And it started to feel like a story, and I've always liked to write, so I started writing it to see what happened. That's how the book got started. As far as spies and the exotic locale stuff--and having spent three years in the CIA, you're naturally thinking about spy stuff--and living in Tokyo, the exotic locale presented itself.
When the series first emerged, you were somewhat evasive about what you actually did for the United States government. What did it take to change your status and come above ground?
I called a friend of mine who was in my class as a trainee, who had left the agency relatively recently, and I asked him, what do I do? He just said, send them a letter, tell them who you are, what you did and what you want, and ask to change your status from covert to overt. Surprisingly, it didn't take very long. It used to be--like the DMV for example--you'd think that the government moves very slowly--usually it does, but in this case, it didn't take very long.
Was the change of status from covert to overt part of the marketing scheme?
When Putnam asked me if I could in fact discuss where I worked and what I did, there was definitely an eye toward marketing. The idea is, honestly, I write about spy stuff, tactics, the mind-set, surveillance, countersurveillance, things like that. So it gives me some credibility in terms of brand--I really know this stuff--I really was trained, I did it, so that's what Putnam had in mind.
In creative-writing circles everywhere, they tell you to write only the book you can write. Is that what you did?
If I hadn't been born, these books would never have been written. And that's a great feeling.
Requiem for an Assassin by Barry Eisler; Putnam; 356 pages; $24.95 cloth
In the following excerpt from 'Requiem for an Assassin,' assassin John Rain is contemplating how to deal with Jim Hilger, a rogue contracted-out intelligence operator who has kidnapped Rain's best friend, an ex-Marine named Dox.
In order to free Dox, Rain has to carry out a hit job on a Silicon Valley CEO named Jannick at Hilger's request. The action takes place in Saigon, Vietnam, and it simultaneously recalls information from previous John Rain novels while also exploring current political issues about the privatization of intelligence operations and the use of high tech to track people's every move. The passage is in Rain's voice.
I WENT OUT the back of the hotel and made a variety of aggressive moves until satisfied I was clean. Then I found an Internet café where, after the usual examination for spyware, I checked the bulletin board I used with my contact in the CIA, a young Japanese-American in Tokyo Station named Tomohisa "Tom" Kanezaki. Kanezaki and I had first run into each other a few years earlier, when he'd been a green, idealistic Agency recruit newly posted to Tokyo. He'd quickly figured out the way his superiors were using him, though, and was a sufficiently quick study to turn the tables on them and survive. Since then, I'd helped him with a few off-the-books matters, and could typically count on him for information, and sometimes equipment, albeit always at a price. I wondered what the price would be this time. Whatever it was, I'd have to pay it. I knew I couldn't get Dox out of the jam he was in without Kanezaki's help.
The bulletin board was empty. I didn't know when Kanezaki might check it, so I sent him a text message from an e-mail account he would recognize as mine: You in Tokyo? Need to meet. Although over the years Kanezaki had managed to achieve a relatively mild rating on my threat assessment matrix, I would have preferred not to warn him I was coming. But I also wanted to make sure he was in town when I arrived, not on temporary duty someplace else.
I thought. Hilger must have had family somewhere. Find them, take them ... offer them up as a hostage exchange? Maybe. Kanezaki could probably point me in the right direction, assuming he didn't balk at the nature of my interest. But if there were family, how close were they to Hilger? How much would he care? And even if he did care, how likely was it that I could kidnap someone, hold him, and negotiate Dox's release, all on my own? While faced with a five-day deadline?
Maybe I could use family as a threat: Kill Dox, and I'll slaughter your aging parents, or your adorable nieces, or whatever. Hilger might know about my rules regarding women and children, but what he saw in my eyes in the Góc Saigon would have shaken his confidence.
But no, that kind of threat could take things in unpredictable directions. I'd given Hilger a slim reed of hope with my talk about getting out of the life. Better to leave it at that, play along for time, and work my way back to him, and wherever he was holding Dox.
After five minutes, I checked the e-mail account again. Kanezaki's reply was already waiting, a simple, I'm here.
I purged the e-mail account and purged and shut down the browser, then left for another Internet café. My paranoia was running hot, and I didn't want to do anything else on the same computer, with the same identifiable IP address, I had just used to contact Kanezaki. I doubted Hilger would be able to trace me through a Saigon Internet café IP address, and even if he could, at most he'd only be able to tell where I'd gone on the Net, not what I'd done or said there. But I've lived as long as I have by not taking risks without good reasons.
From the second café, I checked on flights out of Saigon. There was a 9:10pm ANA flight to Bangkok that night. Perfect. From Bangkok I would have my pick of flights to Tokyo. I booked the flight, purged again, and went to a third café.
This time, I Googled Jannick. The first hit identified him as the founder and CEO of a Silicon Valley startup called Deus Ex Technologies. "From God" Technologies ... whatever they were selling, they weren't modest about it.
I followed the link and perused the site. Once I finished sorting through the jargon about migration automation and cross-platform schema and backpropogation and Bayesian theory, I understood that DET's focus was databases, specifically database search. They were trying to use neural networks--computers modeled on the cortex of the human brain--to spot previously hidden patterns in massive databases.
Jannick had earned a Ph.D. in computer science at Stanford University in 1982. Since then he'd worked for Microsoft, Oracle and several small companies I hadn't heard of. DET was his first startup. I checked the funding page, and was surprised to see that Jannick was funded by In-Q-Tel--the CIA's venture capital fund. I didn't know what it meant, but it had to mean something.
I thought about what Kanezaki had once told me about Hilger's privatized intelligence outfit. Unencumbered by congressional oversight, he could go places and do things the CIA couldn't. It wasn't clear how he had gotten started--on his own, or with his own version of governmental venture capital backing. Whatever the answer, the funds would be untraceable now, deniable. If Hilger's activities got out, his customers, or his paymasters, would simply express shock and dismay at the uncovering of this "rogue" operation; reaffirm the importance of proper oversight; and, if necessary, convene a blue ribbon commission to whitewash the government's complicity and decide on an appropriate fall guy. Thank you for playing, Mr. Hilger. Next contestant.
It was natural enough, I supposed. Democracy is about checks and balances. But if the policymakers find they're being checked and balanced a little too much, they look for what the software types call work-arounds. Can you blame them? You might as well blame water for trying to go around a rock. It's not a question of blame and fault; it's a question of nature and proclivities. If there were no demand for Hilger's services, or for mine, for that matter, there wouldn't be a supply.
I wondered why Hilger would want to eliminate the CEO of a CIA-funded outfit offering neural net database technology. Was Jannick competition of some sort? Did his work interfere with something Hilger was trying to do, or threaten a market Hilger wanted to get into? No way to know, not yet.
I considered how Hilger might try to trace me, making sure I hadn't missed anything. He would expect me to Google Jannick right away. If he had access to the data, he could start with searches for Jan Jannick that occurred, say, one hour after our meeting at the Park Hyatt. Cross-reference the hits with servers in Vietnam, and you'd have the IP address of the computer I used. A long shot, maybe, but it's not impossible. But now, even if he had the access, he could confirm no more than that I'd checked out Jannick, as he would have suspected. My other Internet activity would remain sterile.
I caught a cab back to my hotel, collected my gear, and headed directly to the airport. Hilger might have anticipated the move and put people at one of the choke points inside--check-in, maybe, or outside customs--but I doubted it. Too many cameras, too much security. Also, my gut told me he really wanted Jannick dead. If so, I'd be safe until it happened.
Afterward was a different story.
From 'Requiem for an Assassin,' ©2007 by Barry Eisler. Reprinted by permission.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.