By Barry Eisler, an award-winning author of bestselling thrillers. Eisler spent three years in a covert position with the CIA's Directorate of Operations and has worked as a technology lawyer. Eisler also blogs on torture, civil liberties and the rule of law.
Writing The Detachment was a joy. How could it not be? I got to parachute my half-Japanese, half-American assassin John Rain into the corrupt universe I established in Fault Line and continued in Inside Out; partner him with characters from all my books; and pit him against a formidable and unfamiliar enemy plotting a coup in the United States. The result is some of the most intricate plotting, complex character behavior, and hard-core action I’ve ever done, all set against the biggest canvas I’ve ever painted: rolling terror attacks across America; presidential speeches and Oval Office brinksmanship; a game whose stakes will be measured not just in tens of thousands of lives at risk, but in the consequences to my characters’ psyches and souls.
As much as the story depends for its thrills on character, action, and plot, though, it depends also on realism. Realism of setting (as always, I traveled to every location that appears in the book, including Tokyo, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Vienna, and Washington, D.C.); realism of operator tools and tactics (everything I depict is in accordance with my CIA training and experience); and realism of action (I have a black belt in judo and consult with experts to make sure I’m nailing the nuances of the combat sequences). But the realism that interests me most in any thriller, especially my own, is that of the story’s circumstances.
Since the end of the Cold War, there’s been much discussion in the thriller world about whether the thriller, at least the contemporary version, is still a viable form. Despite then Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey’s admonition that “We have slain a mighty dragon, but now find ourselves in a jungle filled with snakes,” villains seemed scarce during the “peace dividend” years of the Clinton administration. 9/11 and the explosion of al Qaeda in the popular consciousness, of course, changed all that, and Islamic fundamentalism provided a new treasure trove of contemporary villains and plotlines.
For thriller writers interested in realism, though, the familiar “Islamic Terrorist Villain” plotline has a serious shortcoming: terrorism, of whatever stripe, poses far less danger to America than does America’s own overreaction to the fear of terrorism. To put it another way, America has a significantly greater capacity for national suicide than any non-state actor has for national murder. If thrillers are built on large-scale danger, therefore, and if a thriller novelist wants to convincingly portray the largest dangers possible, the novelist has to grapple not so much with the possibility of a terror attack, as with the reality of the massive, unaccountable national security state that has metastasized in response to that possibility.
This is of course a challenge, because unaccountable bureaucracies — what Hannah Arendt called “Rule by Nobody” — make for less obvious villains than do lone, bearded zealots seeking to destroy the Great Satan, etc., etc. The trick, I think, is to create an antagonist who is part of the ruling power structure but who also maintains an outsider’s perspective — who personifies and animates an entity that, destructive and oppressive though it is, is itself is too large and cumbersome to ever really be sentient. This is Colonel Horton, probably the most ambiguous villain I’ve ever created (and therefore probably the most compelling).
And thus, The Detachment: a small team of lone wolf, deniable irregulars, each with ambiguous motives and conflicting loyalties, pitted against the relentless, pervasive, grinding force of an American national security state gone mad. It’s real, it’s timely, and it’s built on an unnervingly possible premise. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.