April 30, 2009

Blood Hunt by Ian Rankin writing as Jack Harvey (Orion Books 1994)

You know that a book written by a one-time punk musician is going to have street cred, though what else it may contain is anybody’s guess. In this case, intelligence, suspense, and some fun political theorizing. Scotsman Reeve is a former SAS officer who trains weekend warriors in the art of tracking and overpowering imaginary enemies. He doesn’t know how handy those talents will come in until he receives a call saying his journalist brother has been found dead in San Diego. The web Reeve unravels to find his brother’s murderers is long and sordid, and would do any conspiracy theorist proud. For the most part, it’s amusing to watch Reeve at work in this tale of physical and intellectual warfare. Rankin has a big reputation among the thriller set, and it’s deserved, though the downside is that the writing doesn’t shine. Words have no importance here—one can just as easily be substituted for another with no detriment to the book. The story’s the thing, and it moves and moves, though if it stopped moving, it would very likely collapse. There’s a lot of sound and fury signifying little, apart from some brief philosophising on the nature of power.

An acquaintance and I once discussed our respective literary tastes. His litmus test was The English Patient. He wouldn’t credit the taste of anyone who admired that book. Ironically, it was also my test. I couldn’t credit the taste of anyone who didn’t understand what makes it great. It’s not snobbishness; it’s about values. In TEP, words are magic. Or rather, how they’re used is the magic, since few words have currency on their own these days. If you have a tin ear for words, the writing won’t entice you. “What about The Great Gatsby?” he asked, not knowing he’d touched on my ne plus ultra. “It’s pretty boring,” he said. To him it was simply a story about a love triangle. Or rather, two love triangles that bisect, with a narrator standing outside each squaring the hypotenuse. Seen in that way it would be pretty boring, but if you have an ear for words, it’s magic. While Rankin’s story rocks, his ear for words is the equivalent of punk music. It’s about raw, primary power, not subtlety and certainly not magic.

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