Book Review: Three Assassins by Kotaro Isaka

Kotaro Isaka's Three Assassins is a high-octane thriller set in Tokyo’s criminal underworld, where an ordinary man goes up against a group of talented and very unusual assassins. Check out Doreen Sheridan's review!

While Three Assassins is billed as the follow up to Kotaro Isaka’s bestselling Bullet Train, it was actually written some years before, and has now been ably translated from the Japanese by Sam Malissa. If you enjoyed Bullet Train as much as I did, then you mustn’t miss this novel—and not just because of Mr Isaka’s signature cross-cutting cinematic style. This book also features several characters who make small but significant cameos in that more famous novel: getting even more familiar with them here is a real treat.

The most memorable of these characters for me is The Pusher, one of the titular three assassins. The Pusher is almost a mythological figure in the criminal underworld, a killer whose modus operandi involves subtly pushing his victims into the paths of oncoming vehicles before melting effortlessly away into the crowds of the city. Does this man actually exist or is he just a bogeyman used to scare his fellow assassins into line?

The second assassin, The Whale, has a similarly subtle method of killing, though unlike The Pusher’s prey, his victims are always well aware that they’re being targeted. For The Whale gives each of his targets an untenable choice: either commit suicide or be killed by The Whale himself. The brave few who try to force The Whale’s hand are calmly informed that The Whale has no qualms about harming their families too should they resist. So far, none of them have.

The only one who tries is our third assassin, Cicada, who learns firsthand (and in elegantly evocative prose) exactly how persuasive The Whale’s methods are for provoking despair:

What is this? Cicada thinks, but by the time the thought forms he’s already been sucked into the abyss. His whole body has been swallowed, sinking deeper, to the darker depths of the ocean. Water everywhere, blacker than night, flooding him, filling his mouth. There’s no pain. The water fills him up. Eating away at him. A foreign substance entering his body, penetrating, devouring. He’s entirely saturated with black fluid. And the whole time, he can’t tear his eyes away from the Whale’s.

Caught between our three killers for hire is Suzuki, a former math teacher on a quest for vengeance against the man who murdered his wife. After his intended target is snatched away from him by The Pusher, he tracks the killer back to the latter’s home, only to suffer a crisis of conscience when he sees The Pusher is a family man. With his own criminal boss breathing down his neck for information, he has to stall for time while trying to ascertain whether this seemingly mild-mannered husband and dad is really the killer who has haunted the Japanese underworld for so long.

As part of these efforts, he falls back on his work history in education, offering to tutor the man’s eldest son while trying to figure out whether he had simply followed the wrong person away from the crime scene. Asagao, as Suzuki’s quarry introduces himself, invites him to dinner with the family as part of an extended hiring interview. The interests of the insect-mad youngest son open up a fascinating discussion between the two adults, with Asagao saying:

“Any animal that lives in a high-density situation will change its behavior. They turn dark, they rush, they get aggressive. Before they know it, they’ve become swarming locusts.”

 

“Aggressive swarming locusts, huh?”

 

“They move in massive groups and fly around eating everything. They even eat their own dead. Totally different from the green, solitary grasshopper. And it’s the same with human beings.”

 

“How so?” Suzuki has the feeling that he’s just been called out by name.

 

“When humans live on top of each other, they start to go crazy. People living their lives all packed into one place. Rush-hour traffic, crowds at tourist sites. It’s actually fascinating, how it works.”

Is Asagao engaging Suzuki in casual conversation or in a sophisticated allusion to the philosophies of assassination? As the two men play their cat and mouse game, the other killers come to existential epiphanies of their own. Haunted by his prior victims, The Whale suffers a crisis of conscience, while Cicada decides he needs to become his own man, unbeholden to the handler he despises. 

The way all their stories intersect is one of the many charms of this intricately plotted novel, as the three assassins cross and re-cross paths, with Suzuki trapped between them. Mr Isaka cuts from scene to scene, injecting plentiful amounts of humor, pathos, and surprisingly deep musings on pop culture into his plot as it pinballs along. It isn’t quite as dazzling as Bullet Train—nor as long—but it’s a wildly entertaining criminal romp with a surprisingly poignant ending. Recommended.

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