Now he's published a new thriller, "The Night Trade," that addresses a particularly harrowing subject — the sexual exploitation of children around the world.
On Tuesday, Jan. 23, Eisler will read and sign copies of his new book (released this month) at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park.
A New Jersey native and a graduate of Cornell Law School, Eisler, 54, spent three years in a covert position with the CIA's Directorate of Operations. He says he left the Agency because the bureaucracy conflicted with his entrepreneurial interests. He later practiced law and worked as an executive for a Silicon Valley startup. He spent a number of years in Japan, soaking up the ambiance and earning a black belt from the Kodokan Judo Institute.
In 2003, Eisler made his debut as a novelist with "Rain Fall," which introduced his signature character John Rain, a half American, half Japanese assassin who kills with undetectable methods in the now famous espionage thriller series. (Actor Keanu Reeves played the assassin on screen in "Rain.")
Eisler made headlines in 2011, when he turned down a six-figure deal from his publisher, St. Martin's, choosing instead to publish through Amazon's APub program and its Thomas & Mercer mystery and thriller publishing imprint.
It's a decision he in no way regrets. According to Eisler, representatives from Amazon told him, "We get what you're doing. You're looking for better time to market, more control over business decisions, more flexibility overall, and a much higher per-unit royalty rate."
"The Detachment" was a solid hit as an e-book, and Eisler's literary career was changed forever. Eisler has since reclaimed the rights to republishing his backlist of books with new titles and cover art.
Although he is often referred to as a self-publishing advocate, Eisler demurs, saying that authors should simply pick the strategy that works best for them
"Publishing, for me, is a business, not an ideology."
Eisler's spouse is literary agent Laura Rennert, and he credits her with shifting his career into overdrive.
"I'm not saying this just because she's my wife, but she is, by far, the best agent I've ever had. I've never been happier with a representative on a number of levels, thank God."
With his two most recent books, Eisler has focused on a new character. Introduced in "Livia Lone," the Seattle sex crimes detective finds in "The Night Trade" that she can't escape the horrors of her past, when her parents sold her and her younger sister into slavery in her native Thailand. She has taken revenge on some of the men who raped her, but some are still at large, more than a decade and a half later.
In "The Night Trade," Livia receives an offer from Homeland Security that allows her to journey back to Asia. There she connects with another member of the John Rain fictional universe — Dox, a former Marine sniper and a confidante of Rain. Dox also has deadly unfinished business with at least one of the individuals sought by Livia.
Asked whether he finds it difficult to write from a female perspective, Eisler said, "I just start with what I know about people. Then I try to ask, how would I see the world if I were this character, with this set of circumstances? That works for me."
He said, "I think it's better to put on your Human Hat first before worrying about 'Oh, God. I'm a man and [the character is] a woman."
One aspect of the Livia Lone books that was particularly challenging was its subject matter, child slavery and sexual abuse.
"It's the kind of thing where you know it exists in the world, but it's comforting to not have to know the details or how widespread it is," he said. "This particular topic was just brutal to read about and to interview cops about."
Eisler recognizes that human trafficking happens in the Bay Area.
"We comfort ourselves by thinking, 'horror exists in the world, but not here.' That's not good, because horror is a human thing, not a cultural thing. It exists everywhere, and if you think it doesn't happen here, how are you going to address it?"
Despite its darker scenes, "The Night Trade" isn't completely bleak.
"One of the things that makes the book work so well is that it's not so much about the horror as about the enduring — and ultimately triumphant — power of love," Eisler said. "Livia is a survivor, and she's motivated by love."
Although he often extrapolates from current events and technologies, Eisler takes pride in the factual accuracy of his fiction. He even reserves space on his website to listing mistakes brought to his attention by readers.
"At the outset, I wanted to make my books as real as I could, and I wanted that to be part of my brand," he said. "From the first book, all the settings are places I've lived or at least traveled to and explored firsthand."
"The plots I use typically have something to do with real things that are going on in the world, sometimes things that are not as widely appreciated as they should be."
He points to his recent stand-alone thriller, "The God's Eye View" and its depiction of "metastasizing surveillance."
"What a lot of people don't understand is just how widespread and intrusive the technology has become," he said. "It's mind-boggling what's out there and what the government is deploying."
Asked whether he has taken any inspiration yet from the Trump administration, Eisler said,
"As a citizen and thriller writer I ask, 'How did we get to this point, where an orange-haired reality-TV buffoon and obvious con man could be elected president?' Something's going on within the political system of this country for that to happen."
What:Barry Eisler reads and signs "The Night Trade."
Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park.
When: Tuesday, Jan. 23, at 7:30 p.m.
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