Entertainment & Arts

Don Winslow: Breathing new life into old assassins

Image caption Winslow's other novels include The Power of the Dog and Savages

A super-assassin named Nicholai Hel, the hero of 1979 best-seller Shibumi, is being resurrected in a new novel this week.

American crime writer Don Winslow explains why he took on the job of bringing Hel back for a 21st Century audience.

The world of publishing likes its "authorised sequels".

Peter Pan, Dracula, Winnie-the-Pooh and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy have all been given new life by contemporary writers in recent years.

Next month Ian Fleming's secret agent James Bond is back in Carte Blanche, a contemporary novel by American writer Jeffery Deaver.

And the end of 2011 will see a new Sherlock Holmes adventure by Anthony Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider adventure novels.

Unlike Bond and Holmes, though, Nicholai Hel only ever appeared in one novel - 1979's Shibumi.

The character was created by Trevanian - the pseudonym of scholar and author Rodney William Whitaker, who died in 2005.

With the blessing of Whitaker's family, Hel is returning in Satori, a Shibumi prequel by US crime writer Don Winslow.

"Shibumi was a very famous thriller back in the day and it made an impact on me," says Winslow by phone from Los Angeles.

"Nicholai Hel is such a unique character. I thought it would be a lot of fun to hang out with this guy for a year in my head."

Winslow admits he initially had doubts about taking on Trevanian's hero.

"I'd never done this sort of thing before. I didn't want to do just an imitation of Trevanian - that would have been stupid.

"You can't completely walk away from Trevanian and his voice and his themes, but at a certain point you have to force yourself to forget about it.

"What I tried to do was find a place where our voices could meld."

'Naked kill'

Shibumi, which has sold 2.3 million copies, focuses on Hel as an older man, at the end of his career as a skilled killer.

Winslow's Satori opens in 1951, where the 26-year-old Hel is sent by his American spymasters to Beijing to assassinate the Soviet commissioner to China.

Hel is a master of the "naked kill" - using his fists or everyday objects as deadly weapons.

The action later shifts to Vietnam as Hel pursues his love interest, Solange, and is himself pursued by a mysterious assassin known as The Cobra.

Winslow was approached about writing his prequel while visiting the UK three years ago. "It was one of those classic English summer days, with rain pelting down," he remembers.

Image caption Jeffery Deaver's James Bond novel will be published on 26 May

"I was giving some talks to students at Oxford and I got an e-mail from my agent asking if the word Shibumi meant anything to me.

"I wondered if these guys were doing a crossword puzzle on a slow Friday back in New York!"

The author re-read Shibumi several times before accepting the commission. How did he find it all these years on? "Dated in some ways, remarkably fresh in others.

"I think dated only in the sense that the pace of the thriller has so increased in the intervening years. Shibumi is a relatively leisurely book when compared to the contemporary thriller.

"In terms of the themes it was remarkably fresh. Here is a character who kills only terrorists, and who has to deal with manipulations by the US government."

Winslow named his novel Satori after the Zen Buddhist concept of a sudden awareness, or - to quote the novel - "the realisation of life as it really is".

With its action set-pieces and love scenes, there are obvious comparisons to be drawn with the world of James Bond.

'Love and romance'

How easy did Winslow find it to create a younger Nicholai Hel? "He is by DNA a Westerner but culturally an Asian.

"What was fun and challenging was I had to keep reminding myself that the Nicholai Hel we meet in Shibumi is 50-something years old and at the end of his career.

"The guy we meet in Satori has had no experience of espionage. He's only killed one person and has no real experience of love and romance."

Winslow read such novels as Sebastian Faulks' Bond thriller Devil May Care to convince himself it was possible for a writer to take on another's classic creation.

"There are some characters that are timeless, certainly James Bond - and Sherlock Holmes is beyond iconic," he says. "People are hungry for great characters."

Horowitz's new Holmes adventure, The House of Silk, is published in November - 81 years after the death of Holmes's creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

"It's narrated by Watson and is very firmly based in 1890," the writer told the BBC earlier this month. "I hope I've caught the voice of Doyle pretty exactly."

Winslow, meanwhile, is now adapting his own recent novel Savages into a script for director Oliver Stone.

Shooting will begin in July with a cast led by British actor and Kick-Ass star Aaron Johnson.

Satori by Don Winslow is out now.

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