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by Ian Rankin
Orion, January 2020
288 pages
ISBN: 0316497924

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Originally released in 1990 in the UK, and reissued in 2020, Ian Rankin's WESTWIND offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a very talented, and in fact world-class, novelist who was struggling to understand and give direction to his craft in the nascent days of his career.

Ian Rankin is candid about his state of mind at the time. Lamenting the fact that WESTWIND initially garnered but one scant review, he admits that he was not, as he puts it, "in a good place" in those days. His first Rebus novel, KNOTS & CROSSES, had been published three years earlier and living in Tottenham whilst working as an assistant at the National Folktale Centre housed in a nearby polytechnic, Rankin struggled to get to a place 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 write a bestselling 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.

Britain in the waning days of the Cold War. The Europeans are less than happy about hosting a formidable US military presence in their own backyard, and the Americans are reluctantly pulling their troops out to friendlier environs. Working at a small satellite tracking station in the UK, 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 one 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. Astonishingly, 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 US 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, 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 has been 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 not as nuanced as we have come to expect in Rankin's later writing, for the 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 his Rebus books (nor should we expect it to be), it remains a revealing portrait of (dare I say it?) The Artist As A Young Man, along with a few glimpses of the master wordsmith he would become. Since then, 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 awarded an OBE and more honorary degrees than will fit in this review. Westwind is Rankin's gift to aspiring writers everywhere, who aspire to rise to his literary heights, and who can learn much from his early efforts. It remains a fascinating read, and will appeal to many readers among Rankin's legion of fans.

§Since 2005 Jim Napier's reviews and interviews have appeared in several Canadian newspapers and on various crime fiction and literary websites, including his own award-winning review site, Deadly Diversions. His debut crime novel Legacy was published in the Spring of 2017, and the second in the series, Ridley's War, is scheduled for release in the Summer of 2020.

Reviewed by Jim Napier, January 2020

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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