Three Early Mainstream Thrillers
Oh, the blessings of being an author with too much time on his hands. I can just picture Ian Rankin sitting in the house (farm? cottage?) he and his wife bought in rural Dordogne, having whizzed through the manuscript for yet another increasingly well-written John Rebus novel and – having left behind all other employment across the British Channel and neither inclined to carpentry nor gardening – feeling his mind growing restless, in need of occupation. Now, wouldn’t you have started looking for another outlet for your creative energy had you been in his spot?
The result of the aforementioned process, which Rankin describes in this compilation’s foreword, were three thrillers written under the pseudonym Jack Harvey (Jack for his newborn son, Harvey for his wife’s maiden name); now finally back in print and reunited in a single volume.
Jack Harvey’s career began with the story of a female assassin – the book’s title character – pursued by various agents of the British and French governments, as well as retired secret service man Dominic Elder, who has both a private and a professional bone to pick with her. The plot moves at Rankin’s trademark fast pace, from Witch’s arrival on Britain’s South Coast (leaving her calling card by blowing up both boats she’d used to cross the Channel from France … with their crews inside) to her first order of “real” business in Scotland, then to London, where Witch implements her plan’s second phase and where her hunters have meanwhile formed a reluctant coalition, to France and Germany, for two rookie agents’ unlicensed investigation of the assassin’s past, and ultimately back to London, for Witch’s final coup, amidst a major international conference no less.
As in the Rebus novels, Rankin particularly excels in the creation of his male characters; they are three-dimensional and, all in their own ways, flawed and profoundly human(e). The book’s few female protagonists strike me a bit too much as variations on the same theme (superwoman with varying degrees of femininity, or what passes for such in male eyes): while justifiable in the title character – especially if, as Rankin says, she was inspired by the “Elektra: Assassin” series – overall this made it a tad difficult for me to identify with either of them. For proof that Rankin, even then, could do much better, consider DC Clarke in the Rebus novels … or Belinda, the (anti-)hero’s companion in the second Jack Harvey novel, “Bleeding Hearts.” Plot-wise, I don’t necessarily think the final denouement of “Witch Hunt” is a let-down per se; although I would’ve wished it had been developed more fully, as had the private motivations of Dominic Elder and one of the rookies, French agent Dominique (!) Herault. Still, Rankin’s first Jack Harvey thriller is a major cut above average and a great introduction to the two following books.
Things really shift into high gear with the second Jack Harvey novel. Unusual is, already, its protagonist: another assassin, but this time a large part of the story is told from his perspective, and the presumed “bad guy’s” first person narrative magnetically draws you in, until you end up rooting for him – the cool, slick, smart, presumably rather goodlooking operator – and not for the ex-cop-turned-P.I. who’s been on his heels for years, and compared to whom even a classic noir gumshoe would almost look like an epitome of innocence (besides being a good deal slimmer). What is more, the story’s enigmatic anti-hero suffers from a birth defect both supremely ironic and potentially fatal in his line of work: hemophilia …
Mike Weston’s nickname in professional circles on both sides of the law is “Demolition Man,” for the small set of explosives he plants near the site of each job in lieu of a calling card. After a few jobs have gone anything but smoothly (or so rumor has it), he needs a good, clean hit to restore his reputation. Just that seems to be handed to him with the assassination of a reporter about to embark on a story involving a religious cult with the peaceful-sounding name “Disciples of Love.” And initially everything goes as planned: the target is where she is supposed to be exactly at the time she is supposed to be there, and he nails her with a shot into the heart; another calling card of his.
But then things start to happen that he hasn’t been planning for, and in his view there’s only one explanation – he’s been set up. So while normally he would leave the place of his hit as quickly and silently as possible, now he has to retrace the job to its origins, find out who was behind it and who wants him out of the way. Assisted by Belinda, the daughter of his trusted, reclusive Yorkshire gun supplier, he soon finds himself on the trace of a group of ruthless people who actually do make our Mike look well-neigh moral in comparison, as well as an international conspiracy not only involving the “Disciples of Love” but also, in the novel’s conclusion, drawing on a lesser-known factual tidbit from the Iran-Contra affair.
We learn little about Mike’s motivation and moral code over the course of the novel. He does reveal that, not having found much pleasure in more ordinary occupations, he gradually slid into his current profession through the fascination with guns and his prowess as a shooter that his father had first awakened in him; and he presents us with all professional killers’ age-old adage: “I knew I wouldn’t be working for the Salvation Army. But then I wasn’t killing any nuns and priests, either. It was only after a few hits that I decided anyone was fair game. It isn’t up to the executioner to pronounce guilt or innocence. He just makes sure the instruments are humane.” Outside a few insights into his psyche like this, however, Mike’s focus is more on the “who,” “what,” “where” and “how” of a job, not the “why” – the latter only becomes a question when his own life is at stake. But this is all just as well. Rankin walks a tight rope in keeping Mike’s inner workings largely concealed from the reader, and he walks it convincingly; much more so than if he had tried to overtly humanize Mike Weston.
Along their chase, Mike and Belinda encounter a number of unique and likewise deliciously drawn characters; to name but one, Mike’s friend Spike Jackson, as gun-crazy redneck as you’ll ever encounter them but at the same time, their only true ally. Add to that Rankin’s superb instinct for locales, language and dialogue, and you have one heck of a ride; a high-powered chase from London to Yorkshire, Scotland and all across the United States, ending with a shootout near Olympic National Park in Washington State that could have been choreographed by the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Brian De Palma.
Of all three Jack Harvey novels, “Bleeding Hearts” is by far my favorite. In the foreword to the above-mentioned compilation, Rankin concedes that in creating Mike Weston he may inadvertently have either “been paying homage” to one of his own favorite novels, Martin Amis’s “Money,” or “trying to write that seductive narrative voice of [the other novel’s protagonist’s] John Self’s out of [his] system.” Whatever it was, it certainly had me hooked; and not just a little.
In the last book, fans of Inspector Rebus meet an old acquaintance; George Reeve from the first Rebus novel, “Knots and Crosses.” Only here he’s the good guy – well, mostly; because there isn’t such a thing as a clean-cut “good guy” in any Ian Rankin novel. In any event, “Blood Hunt” introduces us to Reeve’s back story; his life as an outdoors survival teacher, and his own memories and nightmares of his service with the SAS – after we’ve already gotten a fair share of Rebus’s in “Knots and Crosses” – particularly the Falklands campaign, during which he met the man who would soon turn out to be his biggest nemesis; as much as Reeve will later become a nemesis to Rebus.
Further, we learn that Reeve had a brother; a journalist on the trail of a story centering around a chemical company headquartered in San Diego. When that brother is murdered, Reeve’s instincts as a hunter are awakened – and like a bull terrier he pits himself to the heels of those responsible for the murder and doesn’t let go until he has brought them to justice: his kind of justice, that is, which isn’t necessarily that of the police, but one they understand only too well. The SAS call themselves Nietzsche’s gentlemen – believing in the self-proclaimed amoralist’s teachings that the will to power is all that matters and all that controls life; and the novel’s conclusion is very much in keeping with that adage.
As a back story to the first Rebus book, “Blood Hunt” works only just so – while the essential facts are in synch with Reeve’s and Rebus’s SAS past, to truly click with “Knots and Crosses,” this book would have had to be written about a decade earlier, or vice versa, which in turn wouldn’t square with the later Rebus books’ historical and political references … you get the picture. Read as a stand-alone, however, this is a tightly-plotted thriller, every bit as violent as the second Jack Harvey novel, “Bleeding Hearts” (there’s a reason why blood figures in both books’ titles) and, while based on a conspiracy theory that easily dates it as a mid-1990s release, as strong as both “Bleeding Hearts” and the best of the Rebus books on characters and settings (Scotland to San Diego, London, France and back, with – literally – a cliffhanger finale on the Outer Hebrides’ rough mountainous territory). And then there’s that children’s rhyme that I don’t think I’ll ever hear quite the same way I used to …
While I’m happy enough for Rankin’s success with Inspector Rebus and wouldn’t want any story featuring Edinburgh’s finest (and most hard-drinking) D.I. missing from my bookcases, in a way I regret that Rankin had to shelve Jack Harvey after only three books. So just in case, Mr. Rankin, in the unlikely event that you should ever resurrect that alter ego (or write a non-Rebus novel under your own name): I promise I’ll read that one, too, and probably with just as much pleasure as any of your other books. And yes, I think I also spotted the occasional Rebus in-joke – well, some of them at least.
Love Me Tenderloin, anyone?
Ian Rankin: Rebus – The Early Years: Knots & Crosses / Hide & Seek / Tooth & Nail
Ian Rankin: Even Dogs in the Wild
Ian Rankin: A Song for the Dark Times
A Playlist for Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus Series