Paperback review by Rob Spence
It comes as a bit of a shock to realise that Ian Rankin has now published well over thirty novels since his début in 1986, making him one of the most prolific as well as the most successful crime fiction writers of his generation. Best known, of course, for the Rebus series (a new one on the way this year), Rankin has also written many short stories and standalone novels, of which this is one.
Westwind was originally published in 1990, and for this reissue, Rankin has provided an introduction in which he says that he has given the original text “a polish” but that it remains substantially as it was when first issued. That makes it something of a period piece now, since it is set in the fast-moving world of espionage and space exploration. Between the writing of the novel and its publication in 1990, the world changed in remarkable ways. Thus, the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany do not figure in the narrative: instead, Rankin posits a US pull-out from its military bases in Europe as the starting point for a techno-thriller that involves MI5, MI6, the American secret service, Russian agents in London, a feisty investigative journalist and a Killing Eve –style beautiful female assassin.
Martin Hepton is a nerdy employee of a satellite tracking station in Lincolnshire who becomes suspicious when the station briefly loses track of an important British satellite. Meanwhile, an American space shuttle crashes on re-entry, killing all but one of its crew, the Englishman Mike Dreyfuss. It quickly becomes apparent that the two events are linked, and soon Hepton is the target of someone who is determined to kill him.
The central narrative follows a familiar thriller pattern: the pursuit of an intrepid individual, sudden and unexpected plot-twists, treachery, car-chases, and some gory deaths. Rankin is an efficient storyteller, and this novel certainly holds the attention, with the action moving very swiftly towards its inevitable climax. The characterisation is utilitarian, lacking the psychological depth that one notices in the mature Rankin’s Rebus series, but really, the focus here is on the unravelling of the mystery, and the race against time to foil the massive international forces that confront the hero.
To detail more of the plot would be to give the game away, so suffice to say that the novel will appeal to fans of fast-paced espionage fiction that maintains at least a toe-hold in the realm of the possible, however improbable some of the events seem. There’s also something rather charming about being immersed in a world where mobile phones are an exotic and rare sight, where central locking is an advanced feature on a car, and where state secrets are recorded on VHS tapes. This is an entertaining and lively read, showing that Rankin was already a major contender early on in his stellar career.
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Ian Rankin, Westwind (Orion, 2020) 978-1409196068, 330pp., paperback.
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