Thursday, 16 July 2015

Watchman - Ian Rankin

Watchman is Rankin's third novel, after Flood, which I loved, and the first Inspector Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, which I bought when it first came out in paperback and thought was very poor. Watchman, reasonably enough, sits somewhere between the two.  Like Knots it is genre fiction and thus does not aim as high as Flood.  In this instance it is spy fiction, written very much in the aftermath of watching the Smiley adaptations on TV.  Miles Flint is a silly name, but no sillier than George Smiley, and as with Smiley the name is the direct opposite of the man.  Smiley never smiled - or, at least, not as if he meant it - and Miles Flint is neither well-travelled nor especially hard.

Flint is a watchman, an organiser of surveillance.  One of his key operations goes horribly wrong.  He seems to have been forgiven but soon realises he hasn't.  Machinations are in progress for the top job at MI5, as they always seem to be in sub le Carre fiction, and Miles finds himself caught in the crosshairs.  He is despatched to Ulster, still - in 1988 - embroiled in the Troubles, betrayed and left to fend for himself.  Can he rise to the occasion?  That is the nub of the book but it is far too long in coming.  Really what we have here is three stories rather crudely bolted together.  It cries out for depth and knowledge of the human condition that sets le Carre apart.

It's an immature work by a young writer still trying to find his voice.  There's nothing wrong in that - on these foundations Rankin built one of the great literary careers.  It's well worth reading and judging on its own merits.  But you wouldn't want to read it twice.

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