Different identities are part and parcel of the spy universe. They are also employed by authors who decide to shift gears when breaking with an established series or character. Witch Hunt is a novel written by award-winning Ian Rankin, best known for his books featuring Inspector John Rebus. With Rebus, Scotsman Rankin’s work became associated with the subgenre delightfully referred to as “Tartan Noir,” in deference to Scottish writers of hardboiled detective fiction. After moving away to Dordogne, Rankin decided to explore a change of another kind: writing under a pseudonym. The result was three books initially published under the moniker of Jack Harvey. 1993’s Witch Hunt was the first, and a thematic departure of sorts. While there are familiar police procedural elements in the plot, they are coupled with an MI-5 hunt for an elusive international assassin-terrorist. The quarry is a mistress of disguise who uses the proceeds of her highly lucrative hit jobs to finance personal vendettas. There is a The Day of the Jackal vibe to the story. However, unlike Frederick Forsythe’s renowned 1971 novel, Rankin’ book does not zero in on historical events or personages for verisimilitude. But it does get points for being chillingly prescient: consider this observation about the cagey killer referred to as Witch: “Oh, how Witch loved a democracy. They took their freedoms too easily, treated them too casually.”
The novel also anticipated real life spies returning to a preference for in-person exchanges of information, moving away from too much communication via electronic devices for fear of interception. In the book, retired agent Dominic Elder expresses his concern about the heavy reliance on computers to obtain information. He encourages novice intelligence agent Michael Barclay, who questions the security of communicating via fax, to become a field operative. Old school Elder, whose surname is deemed ironically appropriate by several of the narrative’s characters, becomes the bemused mentor of Barclay. He liberates Barclay from the confines of a desk job, which permits the younger man to do some snooping in France and meet his French counterpart: the lovely and beguiling Dominique Herault.
The agents join forces with Special Branch police detectives on the trail of Witch. There is an impending summit of world leaders in London to worry about. Witch has become extremely active again, blowing up a boat in the English Channel and another off the coast of France. She also dispatches a couple of well- known shady individuals, notably using selected items of their body parts to poke fun at their bedroom antics. Elder has personal as well as professional reasons for wanting to see Witch brought to justice. And it’s possible that Dominique’s dead father was part of the collateral damage of an explosion triggered by Witch, so both Dominic and Dominique are doggedly determined to end Witch’s reign of terror. The intriguing profile of the terrorist is nicely etched in this passage: “She was a loner, a mystery. She almost didn’t exist at all, but then, once a year or so, would come some atrocity, some murder or bombing, a disappearance or a jailbreak, and ‘she’ would be mentioned. That was all anyone called her: she. ‘She’s been active again.’ ‘Who did it?’ ‘We think probably she did.’ Stories were whispered, the myth grew.”
Often when reading a book, I cast actors in the roles of the characters. Witch Hunt metaphorically begged me to have a field day. And since such things are fantasies, there are no rules about going back in time and using performers in their younger years. For Dominic Elder, Ian McKellen in his 50s seemed a good match. With a twinkle in his eye and measured delivery of lines, the wry shrewdness of Elder would shine through. Tom Hiddleston in his 20s came to mind for Barclay. The face of Barclay’s boss, Joyce Parry, is described as “Classically English, whatever that meant. The way she raised her chin as she read from the screen. A long straightish nose, thin lips, short-well kept hair, showing just a little gray. Gray eyes, too. She was one of those women who grow better looking as they age.” Paging Emma Thompson. The facile choice for the oh-so-French Dominique was Audrey Tautou in her Amelie incarnation, but with lots more sauciness and attitude.
Witch Hunt is thought-provoking in another way: it brings up the notion that the connection between children and parents never gets severed. Time and circumstances may intervene, but ultimately blood ties prevail—for better or for worse. Ian Rankin’s deviation from his established formula for success yielded a noteworthy breakaway novel. I’ll steer clear of calling Witch Hunt “bewitching” or saying that “it casts a spell.” Simply put, the book is well executed escapist fare that is laced with insights.