Nicholai Hel is a freelance assassin often working for the U.S. Intelligence Service.
Born in Shanghai in the years just before the start of WWII, he was the offspring of Russian aristocracy, wealthy landowners who were forced to leave when the Communists created the Soviet Union. His mother made sure that his upbringing, at least until the War, was as open-ended as she could get, letting him know much about the world around him. Their world was altered considerably when the Japanese invaded and took control and the mansion in which they lived became the home of a powerful Japanese general.
To young Nicholai, however, this was a fortunate event for in the general he found a man looking for someone to raise and train and in the years before the Allies defeated the Emperor, he became an expert and fan of the Japanese traditions. This included the concept of shibumi, a word referring to the "aesthetic of simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty." In addition to learning to be very good at the strategy game of Go, he also learned he had a unique ability to close his mind to outside influences to gain peace within himself. This would prove exceptionally useful in future days of stress, hardship, and even captivity.
He acquired one addition skill during those years and the ones to follow immediately and that was the art or discipline of the Naked Kill, a simple term the ability to use virtually any object as a deadly weapon. As long as something was at hand, Hel had the knowledge to turn it into a killing object. As he began his career as a paid killer, he used this talent often as he could feel confident enough to walk into virtually any situation unarmed, knowing he would find things he could use whenever he got where his target was.
With his knowledge of languages learned at the insistence of his mother, Hel became a valuable translator during the period of Occupation just after the War, at least until he learned that his adopted father, the general, was being held by the Russians for war crimes. Knowing he owed much to the man and knowing the best way to repay him was to end his life honorably, he broke into the prison and ended his life. For punishment, the American allies of the Russians put him in prison.
Three years later, the U.S. Intelligence Service offered him a chance to get out though that was to go on a suicide mission to kill an impossible to reach target. Hel accepted and did the impossible and lived. He was now a free man with a reputation for being a deadly and efficient killer. He had a new career.
In 1979, mysterious author Trevanian, following up his hugely successful Sancion series as well as several other books which met with as favorable response created the character of Nicholia Hel and turned that into another best-seller and almost a cult following. The exceptionally cool and sexy and deadly Hel was a big hit but one that the author, just finally revealing his true identity to the world, did not want to continue. According to his daughter, his literary executor upon his death twenty-five years later, he was not adverse to someone else doing it but had no interest himself. A few years later, his literary agent presented her with the idea of allowing another author to write about Hel.
With some trepidation, according to her own words, she awaited the results but were pleased enough with them to allow the book to go forward. Rather than try to come up with an adventure to take place after the end of Shibumi, the author, Don Winslow, decided to expand on the impossible mission that had gotten Hel out of prison and into a new life. That prequel created the basis for the character to become a series as far as this site is concerned.