Set during the Korean War and the onset of the Cold War, Don Winslow's "Satori," an entertaining, authorized prequel to the bestselling 1979 thriller "Shibumi" by Rodney William Whitaker (who wrote under the pen name Trevanian), is choked with every espionage and thriller cliché imaginable. The main character, Nicholai Hel (watch out — Hel's coming!), is an amalgam of superhero types found in books and pop culture: Think of a guy who's a mix of Caine from the 1970s TV series "Kung Fu," Ian Fleming's James Bond and James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo.
Hel can kill with a single blow from his deadly hands — and he's not just good at martial arts. He can also defeat his opponents at Asian Go-board strategy, roulette, poker, womanizing, motorcycle chases, the use of military equipment — you name it. Born of an aristocratic Russian mother and a German nobleman, and raised by a Japanese samurai, Hel is fluent in six languages, handsome beyond belief, smarter than most people who ever lived, and has some kind of supernatural power of "proximity sense" that allows him to know when danger, coiled like a cobra, waits for him.
"Satori" is no less a bonanza of cliché than its quasi-immortal hero. We get the obligatory coercion of the reluctant hero into an impossible situation, the spy-training session in which the pupil and instructor fall in love, the secret assignment, the double-dealing intelligence agencies, a delightfully articulate and oversexed dwarf sidekick, a high-stakes poker game, shootouts and martial arts scenes and plenty of identities and passports.
Russian and Asian torturers whose nastiness would impress Christian Szell, the Nazi dentist in "Marathon Man," pepper this novel's pages; peaceful Asian monks turn out to be fierce warriors; and prostitutes actually have hearts of gold, as we've always suspected. A master assassin called "The Cobra" is on the hunt for Hel — so is all of China, Russia, the United States and Vietnam even though Hel seems as powerful and untouchable as Neo in "The Matrix" movies.
I've never been interested in thrillers before, but Winslow has changed my mind about a few things because "Satori" is a delight to read. Combining a style that can only be called literary and a Dickensian plotline that is immaculately sublime, Winslow — whose other recent novels include "Savages" and "The Gentlemen's Hour" — has written a superb book that is not only well-written but fun to read, or, if readers will excuse me, thrilling.
Elegant, well-researched, and magnificently plotted, "Satori" is exhilarating — I read the book twice, not because I had to, but because I wanted to.
Williamson is the author of several novels and books of criticism, and is chair of the criticism committee of the National Book Critics Circle.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times