Rebooting popular franchises is fairly common in movies, less so in books. Sure, James Bond and Jason Bourne continued thrilling audiences long after their creators died, but it’s universally accepted that once the reins of an action series are handed to another writer, the results are unlikely to surpass—or even match—the original work. I’m talking bland. James Bland.
Apparently, no one told Don Winslow. His new book, Satori (Grand Central Publishing, $26) features a classic action hero—the lethal assassin Nicholai Hel from Trevanian’s international bestseller, Shibumi (Croqn, 1979)—and manages to improve on the original in almost every way. I don’t normally read a lot of thrillers, but I had no trouble recognizing Satori as a smart, well-written novel that I can recommend with zero reservations.
In Hel, Trevanian created the ultimate super assassin: highly intelligent, fluent in more than a half dozen languages, master of the ancient Chinese game Go, and an expert at hodo korosu, a martial art that turns everyday objects into deadly weapons. Shibumi featured Hel in his mid-50s, already living in semi-retirement, but Winslow wisely sets his novel 30 years earlier. It’s an unusual tactic—most writers think “sequel” rather than “prequel,” but it’s a clever move that pays off. Winslow manages to demonstrate a healthy respect for Trevanian’s work, while unleashing a Hel all his own.
Satori opens in 1951, with Hel in prison for the mercy-killing of a beloved mentor and faced with the kind of dicey proposition that sets most thrillers in motion: In order to earn his freedom, Hel must embark on a suicide mission by traveling to China to execute a high-ranking Soviet official for the American government. Naturally, Hel accepts. The Americans give him a new face, a new identity and introduce him to the beautiful Solange, who prepares Hel for his role as French-born arms dealer Michel Guibert by filling him with French cuisine and helping him perfect his accent, among other things. The action is nonstop, and Winslow injects tension into every chapter.
In short, Winslow (who has a faithful fanbase of his own, thanks to two decades of writing solid crime novels, from 1991’s A Cool Breeze on the Underground to last year’s Savages) has taken events briefly outlined in Trevanian’s original book and fashioned a first-rate thriller all his own. It’s everything a reboot is supposed to be: all the best elements of the original, but leaner, smarter and more explosive. At times, the action unfolded so swiftly I felt my eyes moving more quickly to absorb the story. Even though it’s only April, I think Satori is the action read of the summer.