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Watchman    by Ian Rankin order for
by Ian Rankin
Order:  USA  Can
Orion, 2004 (1990)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Ian Rankin is best known for his somewhat noir police procedurals, set in Edinburgh, Scotland and starring John Rebus. Watchman is an early book, one that might easily have evolved into another series. Rankin tells us (in a new Introduction) that the story idea germinated just before his wedding day, and that he researched it while on honeymoon. At that point he'd already published his first Rebus mystery, Knots & Crosses.

Watchman is a spy novel, and as can be expected from Rankin, it stars something of an anti-hero. Miles Flint is a professional watcher (in the surveillance business) and it seems that the demands of his job have changed him from his earlier more aggressive character to a man whom no-one notices, a chameleon who blends perfectly into the background. This has ossified his relationship with his wife Sheila, and kept him in the middle ranks in his career. His stumbling into a conspiracy and assorted betrayals cause Miles to find his early self again, to everyone's surprise, especially his own.

A fascinating thread running through the novel is Miles' fascination with beetles, and his categorization of his colleagues as different ones, from the dung beetle to the Sacred Scarab. IRA bombs are going off in London, keeping spies busy looking for the perpetrators. Watchman's plot stirs when Miles, avoiding his sticky home situation, joins a surveillance being conducted by watchmen under him. They lose their subject, who later assassinates an Israeli. Oddities in how it happened arouse Miles to investigate.

Other characters who people the action are Miles' old, gossipy friend and colleague, Billy Monmouth; his ambitious superior, Deputy Director Partridge; an MP with a secret, involved in a committee on defence funding; an investigative reporter with a bad toothache, seeking his next big story; an undercover CIA agent; and an ambivalent IRA man. After Miles' uncharacteristic digging brings him to the attention of those who want to keep secrets buried deep, he's sent on a mission to Ireland which the old Miles could never have survived. A new Miles does, and takes the action back to his enemies in England.

Though bestselling authors' early works often disappoint, that was not the case with Watchman. I enjoyed Miles Flint every bit as much as I do John Rebus, and hope that Rankin will write him more adventures, and soon.

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