Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Enjoyment Found in a “Lost” Thriller

By Jim Napier
Originally released as a hardcover work in 1990 in the UK, and now reissued in 2020, Ian Rankin’s Westwind offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a very talented, and ultimately world-class novelist who was struggling to understand and give direction to his craft in the nascent days of his career.

Rankin is candid about his state of mind at the time. Lamenting the fact that Westwind initially garnered but one scant review, he admits in an introduction to this new edition, that he was not “in a good place” in those days. His first novel starring Edinburgh police detective John Rebus, Knots & Crosses, had been published three years earlier. Rankin was living in London’s Tottenham district and working as an assistant at the National Folktale Centre, housed in a nearby polytechnic. He struggled to get to the point where he could quit his day job and devote all of his time and creative energy to his first love: becoming a novelist. It was against that background that Rankin decided, rather rashly, to try and compose a best-selling techno-thriller of the sort to be found on the shelves of airports and railway stations. It was not to be the emerging writer’s most felicitous idea.

The yarn captures Britain in the waning days of the Cold War, when Europeans are less than happy about hosting a formidable U.S. military presence in their own backyard, and the Americans are reluctantly withdrawing their troops to friendlier environs. Working at a small satellite tracking station in the UK, protagonist Martin Hepton is witness to a double disaster. First the ground station temporarily loses contact with a key British surveillance satellite code-named Zephyr. Then a space shuttle goes awry, plunging to earth with its crew of six astronauts, five Americans and a single Briton. Shortly thereafter, one of the ground technicians responsible for monitoring the satellite also disappears. The explanation—that he had become ill and been taken to hospital—is dismissed by Hepton: that these three events are unrelated seems to stretch the bounds of credulity.

Miraculously, one of the crew has survived the shuttle crash. It is the sole Brit, Major Michael Dreyfuss. He has been found unconscious, with the hands of a dead astronaut around his throat; but before he can be questioned he is whisked away to a hospital in America, where he faces hostile questioning by a high-ranking U.S. military officer.

And so begins the young Ian Rankin’s foray into the fast-moving world of techno-thrillers. Standing on the shoulders of his literary forebears (notably John le Carré and Ian Fleming), Rankin weaves a plausible tale of international tensions, conspiracy plots, larger-than-life villains, chase scenes, and attempted assassinations across the British landscape, with occasional side-trips to the continent and America.

Prior to its most recent incarnation, Westwind was given a light and sympathetic edit, but Rankin says it is essentially the same book he published three decades earlier. Not surprisingly, the characters in Westwind are less nuanced than those we have come to expect in Rankin’s later writing, for this novel is very much a child of its times. More seriously, the tale never quite manages to stand on its own; the reader is constantly aware of stories by other writers of the day that manage to carry readers to a higher level.

Yet, although it is not up to the standards of Rankin’s Rebus books (nor should we expect it to be), Westwind remains a revealing portrait of—dare I say it?) —The Artist as a Young Man, and offers a few glimpses of the master wordsmith he would become. Since 1990, of course, Rankin has gone on to become one of the finest writers of contemporary crime fiction, all but inventing the sub-genre known as Tartan Noir, and receiving an OBE and more honorary degrees than will fit in this review. Westwind is Rankin’s gift to aspiring writers everywhere, who hope someday to rise to his literary heights, and who can learn much from his early efforts. This novel remains an interesting read, and will undoubtedly be welcomed to the bookshelves of Rankin’s legion of fans.

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Since 2005 Jim Napier’s book reviews and author interviews have appeared in several Canadian newspapers and on various crime-fiction and literary Web sites, including his own award-winning review site, Deadly Diversions. His debut crime novel, Legacy, was published in the spring of 2017, and the second entry in that series, Ridley’s War, is scheduled for release in the fall of 2020.

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