Monday, March 07, 2011

Off-the-Cuff Review: "Satori" by Don Winslow

As I noted in my last "Books You Oughta Read" post, Trevanian's thriller "Shibumi" is not a novel that cries out for a follow-up. It's been more than 30 years since the book's publication, and the narrative arc of its protagonist, master assassin and Go player Nicholai Hel, ends quite decisively in its denouement.

Now, however, there's "Satori," "based on Trevanian's 'Shibumi'" and written by Don Winslow. Winslow, author of "Savages," "The Dawn Patrol"  and other well-regarded crime novels is not the first name to pop to mind as a natural successor to Trevanian, aka Rodney Whitaker, the film studies professor who wrote "The Eiger Sanction," "The Summer of Katya" and other best-sellers. "Satori" is not a sequel, nor even a prequel, to "Shibumi," but is set within the quarter-century of Hel's life that his creator did not choose to dramatize.

"Satori" opens in 1951, just as Hel is released from the Japanese prison where he has spent three years in near-total isolation after killing his mentor/father-figure (an act of mercy, rather than of malice.) The CIA chooses to spring him with the proviso that he travel to Mao's China and assassinate the Soviet commissioner. Hel takes the assignment, falls in love his beautiful instructor Solange and adopts the identity of a French arms dealer. Once in Beijing, he discovers that his target, Voroshenin, has connections to his own childhood back in Shanghai, which makes the mission slightly more palatable.

The ingenuity of the original "Shibumi" lay in its being simultaneously an edge-of-your-seat thriller and a satirical commentary of the very same thing. It's a difficult mode to master. While taking a much some straight-forward narrative strategy,Winslow does a pretty good job of it. His version of Hel, about 25 years younger than in the main action of "Shibumi," isn't quite as standoffish and world-weary, but there's a good measure of cynical humor at play. Most of the call-backs to the earlier book work well, although the character who will go on to become "The Gnome" in "Shimbumi" oddly has the speech patterns of another supporting character in that novel.

I can't decide how I would feel about "Satori" if I came to it cold. Even without his full back-story, Hel is a fun character, adept as he is at hoda korusa, "the naked kill," and employing his extraordinary "proximity sense" to locate danger in total darkness. In Winslow's hands, "Satori" has good character work, a twisty plot and some excellent scene-setting.

It's clear that more installments of the Hel saga will be forthcoming. For the moment, anyway, I'm along for the ride.