Book Review: Ian Rankin, Watchman

Ian Rankin is well-known, in the UK at least, for his Inspector Rebus crime detection series. I’d heard of it but not read any. “Watchman” was his one foray into spy stories, written early in his career. Like many successful books by then little-known authors, it had a slow start but then took off big-time. It’s been widely praised.

The Watchman is a low-level British domestic intelligence operative, Miles Flint. His generally routine surveillance job goes spectacularly wrong and he suspects someone  on the inside is responsible. His suspicions make him a target.

This is the world of the 1980s, with IRA terrorist bomb-explosions in Britain and an increasingly dirty undercover war in Ireland.

So far, so good. It’s cleverly-planned and increasingly fast-paced. But I had a problem: while Flint was in danger from very early on, I was halfway through the book before I cared what happened to him. He’s certainly not a cardboard-cut-out figure – a university graduate happy to stagnate in a junior position, a good father whose marriage is fading away, a Scot in London, an enthusiastic student of beetles. But the people I know who are so completely and uncomplainingly without ambition live life to the full and are full of enjoyment of a wide range of things including pleasures and personal relationships. The Miles Flint we’re introduced to doesn’t seem to enjoy life more than mildly and his only really close relationship is with his often absent student son. I can’t quite work out what makes him tick. He’s said to have been short-tempered and occasionally violent as a student, but hasn’t been like that for many years (till danger makes violence seem necessary). Where did that violence come from and where has it gone to? For me it doesn’t quite add up.

I begin to care when Flint’s danger becomes much greater and he is forced into an uneasy alliance with an IRA man, Collins, after someone sets them both up to be killed. I find the haunted Collins’ moods very credible, but he’s supposed to have been a Protestant paramilitary who switched sides without a bribe, without blackmail and without having been a double agent. I can’t quite believe that, either for the character Rankin draws or for Ireland at the time: I may be wrong, but I doubt if the IRA would ever have trusted him enough to use him regularly and the reaction of his “Loyalist” former comrades would have been to hunt him down, something that clearly hasn’t happened and that doesn’t seem to worry him.

That said, it’s exciting, the action is credible and the writing is more than competent.

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