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Rain Fall, Signet, $6.99, and Hard Rain, Putnam, $24.95, Barry Eisler.

Rain Fall by Barry Eisler

Believe it or not, the hitman as hero is not unheard of in crime fiction. Loren Estleman's Peter Macklin is probably my favorite, although Lawrence Block and Thomas Perry have also created memorable killers for hire. Barry Eisler's John Rain is a worthy addition to their ranks, and has an interesting enough character to make the series fresh and compelling.

First of all there's Rain's specialty which is making his hits look like death from natural causes (although he's certainly not averse to breaking necks in less subtle ways). Then there's his killing grounds, modern day Japan, a locale that can seem comfortably familiar one moment and incredibly foreign the next. Rain is eminently equipped to be the American reader's guide into this world, being a self described "half-breed", the product of the post World War II rapprochement between Japan and the United States, and someone who has bounced between the two countries his whole life, knowledgeable about both but truly comfortable in neither.

The first book in the series, Rain Fall, begins with the description of a hit, with all the attendant gadgetry and split second tactics. The cleanly executed job begins to get a little messy when Rain, a jazz afficionado, is enthralled by a beautiful pianist who turns out to be the daughter of the man he's just killed. When Rain is ordered to rub her out too, he finds his purposefully anonymous life in the shadows imperiled by powerful and vicious enemies, some of them from his nightmarish past.

There's a vigorous pace to this book, a compulsive readability driven by an existential, violent man of honor reminiscent of Lee Child's Jack Reacher, enlivened with a dash of James Bond skullduggery and scotch and jazz cool. The somewhat dicey idea of a mercenary killer hero is overcome by Rain's realization that his rules of disengagement are not enough and the end of Rain Fall promises that Rain will use his talents in the service of good. Hard Rain by Barry Eisler

Hard Rain, the second in the series, shows his first steps in that direction. Rain is back in Tokyo, battling a sinister, almost systematic conspiracy of gangsters, corrupt bureaucrats , right wing politicians and rogue CIA agents, at the behest of Tatsu, the representative of the honest faction of the Japanese police. His principle target is a Yakuza thug who is almost his evil twin, a scarfaced assassin who also specializes in death by apparent accident.

Although the second book necessarily lacks the sheer novelty of the first, Eisler successfully adds more depth to the character and setting while still maintaining the engaging pace. Rain may be a force for good, but he's still one bad dude, and by not introducing new characters and not being afraid to unexpectedly bid Sayanora to old ones, Eisler has produced a series that is off to a great start and, luckily for mystery/adventure fans, promises many more enjoyable installments.

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