There’s a wonderful scene in Ian Rankin’s new novel on the Autobahn near Hanover Germany. Two intelligence agents en route to meeting a terrorist have broken down in a 2CV. A German motorist stops to relieve himself. The British agent asks if he has an extra quart of motoroil. “Ja, naturlich,” the German says and zips up his pants. So goes the war on terror.
For those of you unfamiliar with Ian Rankin, here are a few facts. He’s Scottish. His Inspector Rebus novels are set in Edinburgh. Resurrection Men and The Falls are two of my favorites. Rebus is prickly guy and Rankin has a huge series on his hands.
Witch Hunt is a standalone thriller set primarily in southern England. It’s got an intricate plot revolving around a female assassin called The Witch. The protagonist, Dominick Elder, is a retired agent of Britain’s MI5 counter-intelligence service. Elder has tangled with Witch before and not successfully.
In the opening scene Witch slips into the UK aboard a fishing boat. Once ashore, she presses a button and the boat explodes, killing the crew. That same evening a French fishing vessel out of Calais also sinks in the Channel. Young Michael Barclay, Intelligence tech, notices this anomaly and reports it to his boss.
It is often from such humble beginnings that great stories evolve. This one does despite rough seas at the beginning of the novel. Everyone who’s anyone in this story is given a full name. Our small craft pitches in the wild waves created by Info dumps; MI5, Special Branch, lords and betters, worker bees, incidental witnesses all have names. This coupled with fairly precise driving directions in and around Brighton nearly swamped your reviewer whose short term memory is already clogged with directions to places he might actually soon visit. It’s as though Mr. Rankin promised his graduating class that he’d mention them all in a novel and decided to do it in one fell swoop.
The writing smooths out when Rankin sends young Barclay over to France. There he meets DSG agent Dominique Herault. The novel’s most vibrant character, Dominique launches Barclay on a series of escapades that bear greatly on the hunt for Witch.
With this extended set-up, Witch Hunt is an exhilarating battle of wits between Dominick Elder and Witch; Rankin has a nice deft eye for the vagaries of British bureaucracy. The major characters emerge from the scrum like actors who’ve been rehearsing and know their lines. There is a plot twist involving the Witch and her true purpose for being in England.
Ian Rankin hasn’t quite hit his stride in the realm of espionage thrillers. The Ludlumesque point of view shifts add length to the story without adding any depth. The writing is uneven and overall Witch Hunt might have benefited from some strategic cuts. We have a side trip to Scotland that’s well-written, but doesn’t pay off sufficiently. Those first fifty pages needed some tough love. There’s a lack of confidence on the author’s part as he feels his way into the novel’s main story. When he’s with Elder, Rankin is on safer ground. The focus on multiple protagonists reduces tension and diffuses the novel’s climax.
Perhaps the author is setting up series characters. That could explain the decision to devote pages to secondary good guys from Special Branch. I’ll look for a sequel.