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by Ian Rankin
Orion, January 2004
288 pages
ISBN: 075286033X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Scots novelist Ian Rankin is, arguably, one of Scotland's, indeed, Great Britain's, finest crime novelists. Although he had initially concentrated on writing poetry and short stories, one of his short stories took on a life of its own and became his first novel THE FLOODS published in 1986. Of recent years publishers have taken to re-releasing Rankin's early work. WATCHMAN was written in 1988 and is a welcome addition to my bookshelves since I did not read it in its previous incarnation.

Rankin describes Watchman as a young man's book and it is certainly very different from his later, brooding, Rebus books. The author admits that Miles Flint, the protagonist, changes from a ruminative, professional voyeur to a ruthless man of action. He happily credits great authors such as Graham Greene and John Le Carre as being fonts of inspiration for him, saying that their anti-heroes were probably instrumental in the creation of both Miles Flint and his overwhelmingly popular Detective Inspector John Rebus.

Rankin includes historic events such as the IRA bombings in London to add verisimilitude to his own IRA story. His big fictional bombing is located in unfortunate Kew Gardens -- but this does not occur until the action is well underway.

Miles Flint displays paranoid tendencies, in that he always drops cutlery so he can (he thinks unobtrusively) search under restaurant tables for bugs and always inspects underneath his car before driving away, just in case someone has attached explosives to it. That is about the extent of it until, on his night off, he invites himself along on surveillance of a suspect codenamed Latchkey to avoid going home to face a marriage which seems to have become loveless. A simple stratagem sees Latchkey escape the watchers and assassinate an Israeli diplomat. Flint is blamed for the mishap.

Miles is sent to Northern Ireland, told he will thus be able to redeem himself, by his superior, Partridge, who appears next in line for the directorship. Someone Flint had once considered his friend, gossip monger Billy Monmouth, gives him the cryptic warning to be careful but does not elaborate. When Miles arrives in Ireland, he is horrified to learn that the arrest in which he was supposed to aid is an execution, and he is one of the trio due to be executed.

The blurb writer happily informs readers that Miles becomes involved with a suspect, a young Irishwoman. Wouldn't it be lovely if blurb writers actually read books before writing their descriptions -- one of the reasons I don't read blurbs until after I read a book! Miles has decided to rehabilitate his marriage as well as his reputation, prior to leaving England, and dalliance is the last thing on his mind.

Rankin maintains terrific speed and suspense with his customary proficient writing. Certainly there are more surprises in this book than in his recent Rebus books but the writing does not simply seek cheap thrills. There is still a great deal of thought put into all aspects depicted of a spy's life. This is, as the writer acknowledges, an extremely short book, but loses nothing of its quality thereby.

Since the publishers have been re-releasing early Rankin works for the past few years, as well as the customary one new book a year, it will be interesting to discover which new old book is due next for resurrection. I trust it will be another I have not previously read.

Reviewed by Denise Wels Pickles, January 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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