by Ian Rankin
‘No spies any more. Now there were only the technicians.’
Witch Hunt is an early Rankin novel which features none of his now well-known characters. Published in 1993 under Rankin’s pseudonym Jack Harvey, it is not exactly a spy thriller in the sense that heroes and villains are engaged in espionage. However, it does feature the British Security Services, MI5 and Special Branch. [There have been some changes in the structure and responsibilities of these organisations since 1993 because of the so-called ‘war on terror’, but readers should think of them as they were then.]
‘There were times when Witch worried about society.’
In Witch Hunt, MI5 and Special Branch are co-operating with their French opposite number to catch Witch, an international contract killer with a unique MO. She is in Britain, plotting a hit, but the Services do not know her target. The novel has a large cast of characters. On the side of law and order is Michael Barclay, a youngish MI5 agent working for head of department Joyce Parry and alongside maverick former MI5 man Dominic Elder. Elder has brushed with Witch before but the author keeps us guessing as to how their paths have crossed. On the Special Branch side are Inspectors Greenleaf and Doyle. Doyle is a bit of a chancer while Greenleaf is cautious but competent.
‘…. the operating theatre waits for him. Witch, smiling, already has a good sharp knife in her hand. It flashes through her mind that she has been in Britain exactly a week. Happy Anniverary.’
Witch’s first strike in the UK is against a well-known business man who fancies himself with the ladies. She proves herself to be deadly though not without a sense of humour. This contract fulfilled, she moves on. Elder, Parry and Co think her next job involves a senior politician or minister but Elder at least comes to believe her motives are personal rather than financial.
At Elder’s instigation, Barclay, normally a behind-the-scenes man, is sent into the field. He goes to France and becomes entangled with Dominique Herault from the French secret service. Both exceed their remit but in doing so collect valuable information, enabling the officers in England to pick up Witch’s trail.
‘And she was fast. The kick hit his kneecap, almost shattering it. He stumbled, and the flat edge of her fist chopped into his throat. He was gagging, but managed somehow to get the gun out of his pocket.’
Witch Hunt is a sparkling and clever thriller, full of spills and red herrings. It has Tarot, impersonation, bombs and fast driving in Paris. Ian Rankin has a wicked sense of humour and uses it to the full in his character painting and story development.
I picked up this novel recently at a ‘book bank’ along with an early Rebus story, which I will write about in a day or two.