Book Review

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The Roots of Evil, by Quintin Jardine

The final quote on the back cover about this book, from the Glasgow Herald, tells us: “If Ian Rankin is the Robert Carlyle of Scottish crime writers, then Jardine is surely its Sean Connery”; notwithstanding that I’m not sure how complimentary (if at all) this is to the excellent Robert Carlyle, I think the comparison of Jardine’s writing to an actor, someone whose modus operandi is to believably become different people on a regular basis (although in Connery’s case, he could never quite relinquish his ‘shtrong’ Scottish accent, even when playing his best-known character, Bond), perhaps doesn’t convey the message that it was supposed to? In addition, whilst I endeavour to eschew judging a person by his appearance, I think it’s fair to say that one could be forgiven for thinking that the upper body photograph of this author, accompanying the short bio on the inside rear cover, especially by the way he is scowling straight down the lens, could easily be that of one of the ‘villains’ he is accustomed to writing about (although that is undoubtedly presumptuous, on the basis of only reading one of “more than forty published novels”), rather than a man in any way resembling the estimable Mr. Connery. Still, all that said, in Jardine’s defence, his Bob Skinner character (aka Sir Robert Skinner) is a horse of a different feather than Rankin’s Rebus, notwithstanding his predilection for copious use of the f-word; so, this is definitely ’grown-up’ fiction.

This was another book that felt, at first, like it might be ‘hard going’ (although that is probably more a reflection of my capacity to absorb new information than it is of the beginning of this story); and, be warned: there is no shortage of characters whose names must be memorised if the narrative is to be followed, especially given the size of Skinner’s family, as a result of a few different relationships/liaisons. However, it only took me a few chapters to start enjoying the story (and the layout, a very important factor in my enjoyment, of the hardback edition I read, was conducive to easy reading). There is a whiff of nepotism about the relationships between some of the characters, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but when some of these relationships are with currently serving or ex-police officers, surely corruption can only be a half-step away (Line of Duty anyone?). The thread which holds the story together, and which provides the strands that have to be unravelled, is the murder of two police officers; one serving and the other now a civilian; whose bodies are left in a car which is dumped outside one of Edinburgh’s main police stations in the first hour of the first day of 2020 (so it is bang up to date, including a reference to concerns about a new respiratory infection that has surfaced in China at the end of the previous year, and Zoom calls; although I’m not sure how prevalent they were before the pandemic affected Britain): both have been shot, in similar, but crucially different ways.

The clues are revealed slowly, to enable the reader to piece the motivation of the killer or killers together; but of course, they are not revealed in a linear fashion, so a certain amount of mental dexterity is required to put each new nugget in its appropriate pigeonhole. There are international connections as well, so although the action might be confined to dour Edinburgh & its environs, the tentacles of the criminality behind the murders stretch far beyond it. Skinner is in an unusual position, in that he is now Chair of the UK division of an international media company, which among its many activities publishes one of Scotland’s top newspapers, The Saltire, so this can be useful to prevent, or at least mitigate unsavoury scrutiny of police actions and scurrilous speculation thereon; however, he hasn’t completely severed his police connections, because he mentors rising CID officers, and if it aids his investigations as & when required, he can produce a Special Constable’s warrant card. The investigation is brought to a successful conclusion, thereby also solving an outstanding case in another, distant, country, although this is not necessarily satisfactory for all parties involved. I can recommend this book, and I will certainly keep my eyes open for other books by Quintin Jardine. The Roots of Evil is published in hardback by Headline Publishing Group, London, ISBN 978-1-4722-5591-4; trade paperback is also available.

Book Review

Westwind, by Ian Rankin


Image credit: The Reading List

I like Ian Rankin’s work; or, I should qualify, what little of it I have read hitherto; but, given that this is not a detective novel per se, in the Rebus oeuvre, I thought it would be worth reviewing. It is almost science fiction, but (so don’t panic) not quite, for reasons which should become clear in the course of this review. It is also presented, on the cover of the 2019 edition which I read, as “The classic lost thriller”: hyperbolic, perhaps, but it seems that one doesn’t win many prizes in publishing for understatement. After the probably inevitable, and understandably somewhat grudgingly undertaken rewrites, the book, actually his fourth, was published on March 1, 1990, to an almost deafening silence: one small review in The Guardian. “So I decided that it would rest in a dark corner of my consciousness, never to see the light of day again.” Somewhat later, a surprise: Twitter to the rescue! Fans using this estimable service, and one in particular, combined to persuade Rankin to look again at this book, which he duly did, and it was republished in 2019, after giving “the original printed text a polish, … [a] few words have been added here and there, while others have been removed or altered, but it is essentially the same book it always was, just thirty years older and a little wiser . . .”

The story, which is set in a slightly alternate version of our world in 1990 (where Germany is still divided, for example), begins with parallel situations of a British government listening station, monitoring satellites, especially ‘our’ spy satellite, called Zephyr (the significance of which will become clear near the end of the book), and a space shuttle mission, Argos,  to launch a satellite ends disastrously (not unknown, unfortunately), when the shuttle crash-lands, killing four (all American) out of the five astronauts (or are some of them already dead?), and as a consequence, the British surviving astronaut becomes a hate-figure, because American military forces are being unceremoniously kicked out of mainland Europe, which considers that it is capable of defending itself against the old Adversary, Russia. At the same time, there has been a panic at the listening station at Binbrook, Lincolnshire, that has lost contact with Zephyr for over three minutes, which is unprecedented: it was not a drill, and yet the military overlords do not seem unduly concerned. One of the monitoring operatives, Paul Vincent, who is relatively new to the job but very well qualified, thinks he has spotted something worthy of mentioning to his superiors, but before his older friend, Martin Hepton, can quiz him further, Vincent is mysteriously sent on sick leave, to a nursing home, even though Hepton knows him to be very fit & healthy. Hepton is able to visit Vincent on a day off, but their eventual clandestine conversation appears to have been observed by two well-muscled ‘orderlies’, so when Hepton drives away, he becomes fearful for his colleague’s safety.

After this, the story develops into a cat & mouse chase, with an assassin thrown into the mix, and the British astronaut, Mike Dreyfuss, is brought back to England to assist the British security services get to the bottom of what has happened, and how much of a threat Hepton’s suspicions, and Dreyfuss’s near-death experience might be; not only to Britain, but to the whole world. There is many a slip along the way before the purpose of the satellite launched by the Argos mission is revealed, and as usual in any story involving security services, the reader is given clues as to who might be untrustworthy, or actively working for ‘the other side’: it is suggested that one of the main characters might be a wrong’un, but this turns out to be a red herring. It is clear (to this reader, at least) that, despite being one of Rankin’s earliest efforts, it is nonetheless a well-crafted thriller, and the pace of the action increases to a pitch where the book, which is not overlong at only 288 pages, not including the new introduction by the author, attains that epithet that has become something of a cliché: ‘unputdownable’! The story isn’t a classic in the way that, say, Doctor Zhivago, Jane Eyre, or Lolita are considered to be, but it is a thumping good mystery, and I recommend it.