Friday, September 02, 2016

the last book I read

Blood Hunt by Ian Rankin.

Gordon Reeve is a man. A man with a past. A past including Things. Things you don't want to know about. As the back cover blurb says, he is "a professional killer with an anger management problem". So when his brother Jim, an investigative journalist, turns up dead in San Diego and Gordon takes the call as nearest next-of-kin, his ex-SAS instincts are aroused as soon as he turns up out there and finds the local police insisting on a verdict of suicide while being slightly evasive about certain details.

It turns out Jim had been into a story, something to do with the BSE crisis in cattle in (in Britain anyway) the early 1990s, and the received wisdom that it was the rendered remains of sheep, not to mention their own relatives, that calves were being fed that was to blame for the epidemic. Jim was investigating an alternative theory, something to do with organophosphate fertilisers, that led him in quick succession to Co-World Chemicals (manfuacturers of said fertilisers, among other things) and an untimely death.

Gordon retraces some of Jim's investigative steps and soon finds himself coming to the attention of some dubious characters, firstly on his home turf in Scotland and later when he visits Jim's journalist friend Marie Villambard in rural France. Gordon sees the first lot off easily enough, but the second encounter results in a bloodbath, Marie's death, Gordon's being pursued by Interpol and his suspicion that an old acquaintance from his murky past may be about to make a reappearance in his life.

Gordon returns to America and, via some murky SAS-fu involving some more violence and some judicious illegal drug use, manages to extract some information about Co-World Chemicals and their illegal drug research. Having satisfied himself of the reasons for Jim's death, he turns his attention to his old army colleague Jay, his former partner on a doomed mission behind Argentinian lines during the Falklands War. Jay doesn't really care about the ins and outs of CWC's corporate crimes, he just wants to gut Gordon like a fish and piss in his dead eye sockets.

So Gordon decides to make his last stand on his home turf, one of the small islands off the coast of South Uist. Having ambushed Jay and his hired goons there and reduced their numbers, he leads them back to the hills of South Uist where he offs them one by one before a final showdown with Jay.

As you can see from the cover picture above, this was one of a series of books that Ian Rankin published under the pseudonym Jack Harvey; there were three of them published between 1993 and 1995. The purpose of the pseudonym was presumably to differentiate these books from those published under Rankin's own name, which apart from a couple of very early ones are all set in the Rebus universe. There's plenty of precedent for doing this, from Stephen King/Richard Bachman to Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine; reasons range from just needing another outlet for unreasonable prolificness to wanting to experiment with other styles and/or genres. As Rankin himself says in this interview:
The Harveys were big, fat airport-type thrillers: you'd buy one for a flight and you'd chuck it away at the other end. But they kind of let me go off the leash a little bit and let me do things that I couldn't do in the Rebus books.
Rankin's own website, and the modern printings of the Jack Harvey books, have reverted to crediting them to Rankin alone now, which is the convention I've adhered to above. I've only ever read a couple of Rebus novels: certainly Black And Blue, and possibly one or two others. They're pretty good, and Rebus is an engaging character despite occupying a similar niche to Kurt Wallander, Aurelio Zen, Ze Coelho and Harry Hole and various other maverick cops who don't play by the rules but (dammit) get results. Blood Hunt is more in the orthodox thriller genre than any of those, and suffers a bit from an adherence to standard thriller cliché, not least in the Didn't You Kill My Brother thing that kicks off the plot, just as in, say, Get Carter. The basic plot MacGuffin involving the BSE/organophosphate thing sort of dwindles off into irrelevance after the halfway point as well, aside from the wholly implausible episode where Gordon doses up a couple of key people with burundanga and extracts video confessions. The climactic section is really just Gordon and Jay trying to kill each other with no reference to any of the main plot, just their shared Falklands experience a dozen or so years previously.

So it's all good fun, and very entertaining, but fairly cliché-ridden, and no amount of arch quirky touches like having Gordon Reeve's cat be called Bakunin or Marie Villambard's dog be called Foucault is going to change that. If you want Rankins then I'd suggest sticking to the main Rebus stuff; if you want an intelligent and brutally gripping non-supernatural thriller then I still can't think of anything I'd recommend more highly than Tim Willocks' Green River Rising.

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