Westwind by Ian Rankin

Eyes in the sky…

🙂 🙂 😐

When communications with the Zephyr satellite are suddenly cut, the monitoring staff at the Binbrook listening station work frantically to restore it. If it’s down for more than a few minutes, chances are it will be lost for good. Fortunately, it kicks back in after a couple of minutes, as mysteriously as the original breakdown. One of the technicians, Martin Hepton, is puzzled – even more so when a colleague tells him that he has spotted something odd, and then before Hepton gets the chance to ask him what, disappears from the base. At the same time, there is an accident aboard a space shuttle and all the crew are killed except one – a British astronaut, Major Dreyfuss. All this is happening at a time when tensions are high already, due to the imminent pullout of American troops from their bases across Europe. Soon Hepton will find himself in danger, and to save himself will have to work out what’s going on…

This is one Ian Rankin wrote many years ago when he was just starting out. It was first published in 1990 and sank without making much impression. Now there’s a little trend happening of publishers reissuing early books of authors who have gone on to become big names. I’ve recently read a couple of early Peter Mays – one I abandoned and didn’t review, and the other I loved. So there are gems out there – we’ve all read debuts we’ve thought were great and been disappointed when they didn’t break through. Sadly, while this one isn’t terrible, it’s not very good either.

It took me a while to figure out why it wasn’t working. It’s well written as you’d expect from Rankin, and although the characters are clichéd and the technology is seriously outdated, neither of these is unusual in action thrillers. I realised it’s the timing that’s off. In thrillers, there’s always a need to keep the reader in the dark alongside the characters as they battle against the odds to discover what’s going on. But there has to be something to hold the attention while the plot gets a chance to develop – usually the reader getting to know and care about the main character – and that’s where this one is weak. For several chapters, we keep meeting new people, most of whom are so underdeveloped that I found in the later stages I had no recollection of who they were or in what context we’d met them before, and each encounter is equally mysterious, constantly adding to the confusion. It bounces around so much that it was quite a while before I was even sure that Hepton was going to be the hero of the story. By that point my interest level had already flagged.

Hepton of course becomes the target of the baddies who are determined to kill him. This baffled me a bit, since he didn’t know anything and probably wouldn’t even have started looking into it if they hadn’t started chasing him around. A rather incompetent move, I felt, to actually inspire him to become suspicious! That wasn’t their only incompetence, though – I really felt that if their assassins were this bad at killing people, then the world probably wasn’t in too much danger from them.

And I’m afraid that when we finally find out who the baddies are and what they’re up to, I found it not only lacking in credibility but unfortunately all a bit silly. It left me feeling that Rankin was more interested in the action parts of the book than in ensuring there was a solid plot beneath them.

Ian Rankin

I’ve swithered over how to rate it. I suspect if it hadn’t been Rankin, my expectations would have been lower and therefore I’d have been less disappointed in it. But then if it had been written by someone else, I also think I’d be unlikely to seek out more of the author’s work based on this outing. I’m not convinced that this is a good trend – two disappointments out of three from two of my favourite authors of all time suggests that maybe their forgotten early books should be left to rest in peace. 2½ stars in the end, but I suspect that one of them may simply be because of my affection for Rankin’s later work…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion, via NetGalley.

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39 thoughts on “Westwind by Ian Rankin

  1. It was surprising to see ‘the iconic number one bestseller’ on the front cover (although 50% of Amazon reviews are 5*)…unless it’s refering to Rankin himself, of course. It’s not very often a book grabs me when I can’t relate to and care about the main character(s) Just as a matter of interest, what was the Peter May book you discarded? I have one of his early ones in my TBR…

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    • I have a theory that lots of people only review books they love, which skews the overall ratings. There seems to be a feeling that it’s rude to leave a negative review, and I kinda understand that, but it’s not mega-helpful to readers. I suspect in this case the ‘bestseller’ reference is indeed to Rankin rather than this book – again misleading. The Peter May one I abandoned was The Noble Path, and I have to say it was because I didn’t like the subject matter – it was way too grim and dismal for me. But I did think it was well written and well researched, so if that’s the one you’ve got don’t let me put you off. The one I loved was The Man with No Face, which I thought was as good as most of his later stuff!

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  2. I know what you mean about the timing, FictionFan. I’ve read books like that, too, where the pace was a bit off and the characters not developed the way you’d want. But it’s interesting that, even in this one, that wasn’t very good, you see the makings of a highly skilled author. His writing style was strong even then, and I like that chance to see an author’s development. Still, think I’ll give this one a miss…

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    • Yes, there is an interest in seeing how authors started out, but sometimes it works better than others. I thought it was interesting that Rankin pulled away from thrillers and went for straighter police procedurals in his later stuff, and that he clearly grasped that a strong central character or team is essential in holding the reader’s interest. And I often think that authors who achieve wild success with first novels struggle much harder down the line than writers who take a bit of time to learn their craft…

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    • It’s a pity because the initial setup sounded quite promising but all that jumping around at the beginning was really off-putting. I honestly don’t think you’ve missed much by not finishing it…

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  3. “Sadly, while this one isn’t terrible, it’s not very good either.” Pretty much sums this one up, FF. I haven’t read it, but I’m sorry you found it lacking. I think those early books by now-famous authors probably do deserve to be forgotten. Not everyone hits a winner right off the bat! At least he learned something and improved, right?

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    • Yes, it’s quite interesting to see how some of these authors started out and how much they improved over time, but I’m not sure dragging back mediocre early books is worthwhile, either for the reader’s pleasure or the author’s reputation. I’d hate this to be the first Rankin anyone read, because it might also be the last…

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  4. It’s always interesting to be able to go back to an author’s earlier books and see how they began, even if it is disappointing compared to their later works. On the opposite end though, I dislike later books that show an author’s deterioration, as they age for example.

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    • Oh yes, that’s much worse! I’ve read a few late books by loved authors, including my beloved Christie, and wished some publisher had had the strength of mind to tell them the book wouldn’t do their reputation any good. It always make me sad to think that a new reader might pick up one of these late books and write the author off completely on the basis of it.

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  5. It’s interesting the way certain authors appear to get into their stride immediately, while it perhaps takes others a little while to develop their craft. To be honest though, much as I like the Inspector Rebus stories, I don’t think this particular novel would be for me even if the plot had been better excecuted. It sounds as if there is probably a reason why it has slipped under the radar.

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    • I often think that authors who have a wild hit with a first novel struggle much harder down the line than authors who have to grow into success. And Rankin certainly grew into his! By the time of the Rebus books he’d clearly worked out how important it is to have a strong central character or team for the reader to care about. I’m glad he pulled away from this type of thriller – his style works much better for the slightly slower pace of the police procedural, I think.

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  6. Ian Rankin has written many impressive thrillers but I haven’t read this one and based on your thoughts I think I’ll skip it. One of my pet peeves in the mystery/thriller genre is an overload of minor characters who never really materialise into anyone significant in connection to the crime itself. Great review though and I hope that your next read is much better!

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    • Thank you! Yes, I think it can be a common fault of thrillers to have too many characters who disappear for large chunks of the book. I love Rankin’s Rebus books, and by that stage he’d clearly worked out how important it is to have a string central character for the reader to care about.

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  7. Since I have a bad memory for names and often get confused, when too many new characters are introduced, this one is definitely not for me. And – dare I say it – I’m not a big fan of the Rebus books either. I don’t think they are bad, but definitely not amongst my favourites.

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    • The reason I love the Rebus books so much is that they provide a kind of contemporaneous social commentary on the state of Scotland and the Scottish psyche, so it doesn’t surprise me that they often don’t appeal as much to non-Scots. That’s why I like him, actually – so many Scots writers write for the outside world, whereas I feel he writes very much for his fellow Scots…

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      • Well, considering the popularity of the Rebus books, I am sure they must appeal to lots of non-Scots as well. I am not even sure, why they didn’t quite hit home for me, but I believe I didn’t get on that well with the characters. To me Stuart MacBride appeals more, but non of them can compete with James Oswald, whose McLean series, I have come to love. I haven’t thought about your point about writing for Scottish people vs. the outside world. Perhaps you pay more attention to that, when you are actually Scottish?

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        • I used to love Stuart MacBride but I kinda went off him a few books ago – somehow I stopped believing in the characters. However the publisher has sent me his new one so I’m hoping it might revive my love! I’ve never read James Oswald – I believe there’s a supernatural element in them, and that always puts me off…
          Yes, it’s a constant annoyance to me and I assume to lots of other Scots. Because the English population is ten times the Scottish, a lot of Scots writers gear their books towards the English market or even base them in England, Understandable, but annoying…

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          • Yeah, you are right about Oswald and the supernatural, I didn’t realise that, when I downloaded the first book in the series. But I quickly got used to it, and now I might even miss it, if it didn’t appear. Strange things do happen! 😉

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  8. You reaction does raise questions about the validity of publishing this book. It’s clearly not up to his normal standard so fans will invariably be disappointed. I wonder why the publishers did this – they can’t be short of £ surely?

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    • I have a feeling that as these writers age they refuse to do the book-a-year thing any more, and so the publishers look for other ways to feed the fans’ desire for new books, but it doesn’t seem to work very well. I reckon authors should be allowed to slow down or retire just like the rest of us…

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  9. This will be shocking, but I’ve never read a single Ian Rankin book! Of course I’m familiar with him, but as were just saying in earlier convos, author’s first few attempts at writing may always be a bit ‘iffy’. Once they get into the groove of it all-watch out! Publishers should be careful about the ‘early’ works they decide to resurrect though 🙂

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    • Yes, it’s one of the reasons I’m always happy to dip into the middle of a long-running series first – the early books are often the weakest. The Rebus books are great – again I found the ones in the middle better than the early or late ones, though.

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  10. Your wonderful talent, FF, is to be able to create interesting and well-worth-reading reviews even out of books that aren’t reaching the same standard. Thank you! I think I might try and integrate swither and haver into the Kiwi vernacular, I do like those words!

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    • Aw, thank you, Christine – I’m so glad you enjoy my rambles and rants! Haha – do! I love both words and I really can’t think of exact English equivalents for either. And I do love to swither – and to haver, occasionally! 😉

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