THREE ASSASSINS by Kotaro Isaka (Harvill Secker)
The English translation of Kotaro Isaka’s Bullet Train proved to be a surprise hit last year, no doubt helped along by the news of the forthcoming Brad Pitt movie based on the book. Bullet Train was a high paced, quirky read about five assassins competing for a suitcase full of money on a bullet train from Tokyo, and adroitly mixed action with some offbeat humour and plenty of violence.
Now following on from the success of Bullet Train, and close on the heels of the recently released trailer for the movie, comes Isaka’s Three Assassins (Harvill Secker, 14 April 2022).
Three Assassins was actually published in Japan before Bullet Train, and one of the principal characters in it has a minor role in Bullet Train. The story has the same frenetic style as Bullet Train, and follows a former everyday sort of guy, Suzuki, who is now on a trail of vengeance following the murder of his wife. When he discovers the criminal gang responsible for his wife’s death, he leaves behind his life as a teacher and joins them, looking for a chance to take his revenge. Although he regrets some of the things he has done while in the gang he is determined to push through with his plan and when an opportunity arises he takes it. Unfortunately he finds himself in a bloody tussle with three unusual assassins, each of whom has their own agenda and their own way of killing:
The Whale convinces his victims to take their own lives using just his words.
The Cicada is a talkative and deadly knife expert.
The elusive Pusher dispatches his targets in deadly traffic accidents.
Over a twenty four hour period Suzuki finds himself pushed to the edge and questioning his decisions.
This is a very briskly written novel that frequently shifts its viewpoint between Suzuki and two of the assassins, as the story weaves its way to an unexpected climax. Set in a vividly described Tokyo, Isaka mixes gritty detail with possibly fantastical elements, and the occasional philosophical rumination. The central concept of a secret world of assassins and criminal actors probably takes some suspension of disbelief, but Isaka keeps it all well grounded with realistically shoddy locations and believable interactions. There is also a nice cynicism to the reflections on power and wealth.
The characters are an eclectic and eccentric bunch, but Isaka brings them alive for the reader and skilfully uses small details to make them credible. It is an impressive achievement.
In all, Three Assassins is a slightly different, but very enjoyable read, that kept me happily entertained over a couple of days.
Four stars out of five!
Three Assassins will be released in Australia and the United Kingdom on 14 April 2022.
Thanks to the publishers and the Canberra Weekly for the book.