The classic lost thriller from the iconic number one bestseller.
It always starts with a small lie. That's how you stop noticing the bigger ones. After his friend suspects something strange going on at the launch facility where they both work - and then goes missing - Martin Hepton doesn't believe the official line of "long-term sick leave"...
Refusing to stop asking questions, he leaves his old life behind, aware that someone is shadowing his every move.The only hope he has is his ex-girlfriend Jill Watson - the only journalist who will believe his story. But neither of them can believe the puzzle they're piecing together - or just how shocking the secret is that everybody wants to stay hidden...
“Rankin is a master storyteller” GUARDIAN
“Great fiction, full stop” THE TIMES
“Ian Rankin is a genius” LEE CHILD
“One of Britain's leading novelists in any genre” NEW STATESMAN
“A virtuoso of the craft” DAILY MAIL
“Rankin is a phenomenon” SPECTATOR
“Britain's No.1 crime writer” MIRROR
“Quite simply, crime writing of the highest order” EXPRESS
“Worthy of Agatha Christie at her best” SCOTSMAN
Release date: January 7, 2020
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 304
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As you can see, I was not in what is these days referred to as ‘a good place’ in the early months of 1990, as my diary of the time regularly records. Here’s Wednesday February 28: ‘I was wondering today, when will Westwind be published? I knew it was scheduled for March and books are always published on a Thursday. But it can’t be tomorrow surely–Barrie & Jenkins (my publisher at the time) would have been in touch re possible sources of publicity. Surely my author’s copies should have arrived? But on returning home a gift bottle of whisky greeted me. Must be tomorrow then–with so little ceremony!’
It’s easy to be sanguine as I look back at my younger self, but I was demonstrably starting to lose belief in my abilities, doubting my future as a publishable writer. I was also slogging my guts out, working a day job in London and trying to find space to write in what free time remained to me. My first Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses, had been published without fanfare in 1987. On May 12 of that year I record in my trusty diary that ‘I should be doing the satellite novel (Westwind in other words). I’m doing nothing.’ Well, not nothing exactly because at the same time I was also polishing the spy thriller which would appear the following year as Watchman. I was living in Tottenham and working as an assistant at the National Folktale Centre, based at what was then Middlesex Polytechnic. Unusually for London, this meant I could walk to work. It also gave me access to a computer, while at home I still hammered away on a noisy electric typewriter. Not that the computer, with its large floppy disks, was much use to me–I didn’t know anyone else (my publisher included) who used one. My first Amstrad word processor was still a ways off, while the fax machine in my workplace remained as mysterious to me as the Sphinx.
I’m not sure what gave me the idea that a techno-thriller would be my next project.
Knots & Crosses had been a fairly traditional whodunit. Watchman was a spy novel influenced by Graham Greene’s The Human Factor. Westwind, on the other hand, would start with a space shuttle plummeting to earth and a malfunctioning satellite. It seems to me now that I was feeling my way towards what kind of writer I wanted to be. High on the list was: successful enough to give up the day job. I’d tried the crime novel and the spy novel and now I was going to attempt to write the sort of high-tech thriller that sold by the pallet-load in airports and railway stations. So it was that I visited my local library on Tottenham High Road and asked the librarian for anything they could give me to do with space shuttles and how satellites work. Many of the resulting books proved too technical for me–my degree was in English literature rather than mathematics and physics–but a few proved useful. (I’ll admit now that one of them was a children’s book.) Then there was the trusty Rand McNally Road Atlas of the USA, since part of the book was going to be set there (international sales ahoy!) and I’d yet to visit that country outside of novels, movies and TV shows.
As you can see, I was young, hungry, naïve–and driven.
Turning to my diaries again to help me with this introduction, I was surprised at the long gestation of Westwind. The first mention I can find is May 1987, and by June I was happily at work on it. At this time it was called Coffin Burial, and my one issue was that my typewriter needed repairing. In July 1987 I was chipping away at it while also editing Watchman. By August, I was having doubts, but in September, I was finding some of the writing ‘v exciting’ and ‘heart-pounding’. By December, the first draft of the book was finished and the title had been changed to Westwind. (I’m not sure where Coffin Burial came from–I did think it was a poem, but I can’t find it on the internet. My memory was, it might have been John Masefield, but again I can’t find it in a list of his works–though I did come across a poem of his called ‘The West Wind’. Coincidence?)
My agent read the book over the festive period and got back to me in January 1988. He was not enthusiastic and wanted major revisions before submitting it to a publisher. Okay, so by March I’d tweaked the book, but then everything seemed to go quiet. There was TV interest in Knots & Crosses and I was also working on a script for a potential film of my first novel The Flood. I was also getting ready for publication of Watchman and applying for jobs with a bit more pay than I was getting at Middlesex Poly. By May, I was at work on a new Rebus novel (which would eventually see the light of day as Hide and Seek) and by the summer I’d secured work as a journalist on a monthly magazine called Hi-Fi Review. Watchman was out and receiving some good reviews (if decidedly sluggish sales) and Westwind was languishing. By September, my agent was apologising that he still had no takers for the revised book. I was almost too busy to notice. My new job came with a ninety-minute each-way commute, during which I was devouring novels which I’d started reviewing for the newspaper Scotland on Sunday. I’d also been approached to pitch script ideas to ITV’s The Bill, and I was working away between times on the Rebus book…
Then, praise be, my agent phoned with news. My old editor from Bodley Head (who had taken both Knots & Crosses and Watchman) had switched publishers and was now at Barrie & Jenkins. He wanted to revitalise their meagre fiction list. In short, he wanted Westwind. By January 1989 I was discussing further edits to the book and by March I’d signed a contract. Nineteen eighty-nine saw me continuing to write Hide and Seek (at this point titled Dead Beat) while revising Westwind, and still working as a hi-fi reviewer. Westwind was eventually finished by July. I had a new editor by then, however, and she disliked some of the book’s tone, finding it too humorous for a thriller. She wanted a tougher book and I did my best to comply, meaning a further edit. Which brings us to March 1 1990 and publication.
Not that anyone noticed. There was one hardcover printing, one paperback, and one in large format for readers with limited sight. It didn’t sell to the USA and no foreign-language publisher wanted it. What’s more, the book had taken so long to get into print, and been through so many permutations and revisions, that I could muster very little enthusiasm for it myself. Every time my agent or editor had asked me to rework it, I had acquiesced, until it felt like it wasn’t really my book at all–certainly not the one I’d set out to write.
So I decided that it would rest in a dark corner of my consciousness, never to see the light of day again.
Until Twitter changed my mind.
There had been the odd occasion where a fan at a signing would tell me they’d read it and liked it. Those fans had either got lucky in charity shops or else had shelled out a lot of money to a book dealer. Yes, the book had its fans, but I wasn’t among them until someone on Twitter persuaded me to give the book another look. ‘It’s better than you think it is, Ian.’ It had been so long since I’d read it that it felt like reading another writer’s work. This proved to be a good thing–I could be objective as I raced through the pages. Yes, it had a few faults and some of the sentence construction was overwrought. It also felt a little bit dated, but on the other hand it also seemed prescient. I had set it in an alternative 1990 where American troops are being pulled out of Europe. International tensions are high. The US is retrenching and the military is worried about the future direction Europe will take. Satellites circle Earth, being used potentially to spy on everyone and everything. No one knows who to trust, or what’s about to happen.
Yes, I saw plenty of parallels with the current geopolitical situation, but I also enjoyed reading it. The characters came to life, the plot was pacy, the villains were scary and the heroes believable. And oh the nostalgia! Central locking for cars was obviously a fairly new thing (not remote central locking, mind), since I mentioned it more than once. Then there were the Filofaxes, floppy disks and cassette tapes. People smoked on aeroplanes, Tower Records had arrived at Piccadilly Circus, and Germany was still divided into East and West.
I’d forgotten that the listening base where Martin Hepton works was sited at Binbrook, Lincolnshire–a location I’d chosen because my sister Maureen (married to an RAF technician) had lived there for several years and I’d stayed with her as a teenager over the course of one or two long, hot school-holiday summers, back in the days when I was convinced I was going to be either a rock star or a poet. This is partly why I have the notion that ‘Coffin Burial’ must have been a poem. But during the course of writing the book, I started disliking that title. My British spy satellite was called Zephyr, and a zephyr is a light breeze or ‘the west wind’. Bearing in mind that (influenced by Alan Moore’s comic Watchmen) I was calling my spy novel Watchman, maybe I had the idea that my novels could all start with the letter ‘w’. The third Rebus novel, after all, would be titled Wolfman (before an astute editor in the US asked me to alter it to Tooth and Nail so as not to deter non-horror book buyers). The George Bernard Shaw quote at the start of the book was probably another piece of serendipity–the ‘false wind from over the water’ might refer to either the US or Russia. It certainly hints that those you think of as your friends may actually have hidden intentions and ulterior motives.
I’ve given the original printed text a polish, hopefully ridding it of those flawed sentences and scenes. A few words have been added here and there, while others have been removed or altered, but it is essentially the same book that it always was, just thirty years older and a little wiser…
Ian Rankin, 2019
He watched the planet earth on his monitor. It was quite a sight. Around him, others were doing the same thing, though not perhaps with an equal sense of astonishment. Some had grown blasé over the years: when you’d seen one earth, you’d seen them all. But not Martin Hepton. He still felt awe, reverence, emotion, whatever. If he had called it a spiritual feeling, the others might have laughed, so he kept his thoughts to himself. And watched.
They all watched, recording their separate data on the computer, keeping an eye on earth from the heavens while their feet never left the ground. Hepton felt giddy sometimes, thinking to himself: this is the only earth there is, and we’re all stuck with it, every last one of us. At such moments, the thought of war seemed impossible.
The ground station at Binbrook was small by most standards, but quite large enough for its purpose, and it was sited in the midst of the greenest countryside Hepton had ever seen. He had been born here in Lincolnshire, but had grown up in 1960s London; ‘swinging’ London. It had swung right past him. With his head stuck in this or that textbook he had never quite noticed the bright clothes, the casual attitudes, the whole hippy shake. Too often, when his head wasn’t in a book, it had been raised to the sky, naming a litany of stars and constellations. And it had led to this, as though by some predetermined scheme. He had reached for the skies and had touched them. Thanks to Zephyr.
Zephyr was the reason behind all this activity, all these monitors and busy voices. Zephyr was a British satellite. The British satellite. It wasn’t the only one they had, but it was the best. The best by a long shot. It could be used for just about anything: weather-watching, communications, surveillance. It could drop from its orbit to within a hundred kilometres of earth, take a pristine picture, then boost back into the higher orbit again before relaying the information back to the ground station. It was a clever little sod all right, and here were its nursemaids, keeping a close eye on it while it kept a close eye on the British Isles. Nobody seemed quite sure why Britain was Zephyr’s present target. Word had gone around that the brass–meaning the military and the MoD–wanted to survey this sceptred land, which was fine by Hepton. He would never tire of staring at the various screens, seeing what his satellite saw, making sure that everything was recorded, filed, double-checked. And then viewed by the generals and the men in the pinstripe suits.
He had his own ideas about the present surveillance. The United States was pulling its troops out of Europe. It all looked amicable and agreed, but rumours had started in the press, rumours to the effect that there had been a good amount of shove on the part of the mainland European countries, and that the American generals weren’t entirely happy about leaving. The rumours had led to some demonstrations by right-wing parties, asking that the ‘USA stay! USA stay!’, and an organisation of that name had quickly been formed. More demos were now taking place, and vigils outside the embassies of Britain’s partners in Europe. Not exactly powder-keg stuff, but Hepton could imagine that the government wanted to keep things nailed down. And who better than Zephyr to follow a convoy of protesters or keep tabs on rallies in different parts of the country?
All at the touch of a button.
‘Coffee, Martin?’ A cup appeared beside his console. Hepton slipped his headphones down around his neck.
Nick Christopher nodded towards the screen. ‘Anything good on the telly?’ he asked.
‘Just a lot of old repeats,’ answered Hepton.
‘Isn’t that just typical of summer? Honestly, though, I’ll go mad if we don’t get some new schedules soon.’
‘Maybe we’re due for a little excitement.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Christopher.
‘Well,’ said Hepton, cradling the plastic beaker, ‘I’ve heard that the brass are around today. Maybe Fagin will put on a simulation for them, show them we’re on our toes.’
‘Anything for a shot of adrenaline.’
Hepton stared at Nick Christopher. Rumour had it that at one time he’d shot more than just adrenaline. But that was the base for you: when nothing was happening, the rumours seemed to start. Christopher was reaching into his back pocket. He brought out a folded, dog-eared newspaper, its crossword nearly completed. Hepton was already shaking his head.
‘You know I’m never any good at those,’ he said. Nick Christopher was a crossword addict. He’d buy anything from a kiddies’ puzzle book to The Times to feed his habit, and over by his desk he had weighty tomes dedicated to his pursuit: dictionaries, collections of synonyms and antonyms and anagrams. He often asked Hepton’s help, if only to show how close he had come to solving the day’s most difficult puzzle. Now he shrugged his shoulders.
‘Well, see you at break time,’ he said, heading back towards his own console.
‘Biccies are on me,’ Hepton said.
There was a sudden wrenching of the air as an alarm began to sound, and Christopher turned back to smile at him, as if to congratulate him on his hunch. Hepton put down his coffee untouched and checked the screen. It was filled with flickering white dots, static. The other screens nearby were showing the same electronic snow.
‘Lost visual contact,’ someone felt it necessary to say.
‘We’ve lost all contact,’ called out another voice.
It looked as though Fagin had set them up after all. There was immediate activity, chairs swivelling as consoles were compared, buttons clacked and calls made over the intercom system. Despite themselves, they all relished the occasional emergency, contrived or not. It was a chance to show how prepared they were, how efficient, how quickly they could react and repair.
‘Switching to backup system.’
‘Coding in channel two.’
‘I’m getting a very sluggish response.’
‘So stop talking to snails.’
An arm snaked past Hepton’s shoulder and punched numbers out on his keyboard, trying to elicit a response from their own. Nothing. It was as if some television station had packed up for the night. All contact had been lost. How the hell had Fagin rigged this?
Hepton lifted his coffee to his lips, gulped at it, then squirmed. Nick Christopher must have dropped a bag of sugar into it.
‘Sweet Jesus,’ he muttered, the fingers of one hand still busy on his keyboard.
‘No response here.’
‘I’m getting nothing at all.’
A voice came over the speaker system, replacing the electronic alarm.
‘This is not a test. Repeat, this is not a test.’
They paused to look at each other, reading a fresh panic in eyes reflecting their own. Not a test! It had to be a test. Otherwise they’d just lost a thousand million pounds’ worth of tin and plastic. Lost it for how long? Hepton checked his watch. The system had been inoperative for over two minutes. That meant it really was serious. Another minute or so could spell disaster.
Fagin, the operations manager, had appeared from nowhere and was sprinting from console to console as though taking part in some kind of party game. Two of the brass were in evidence too, looking as though they’d just stepped out of a meeting. They carried files under their arms and stood by the far door, knowing nothing of the system or how to be of help. That was typical. The people who held the purse strings and gave the orders knew nothing about anything. That was why the budgeting on Zephyr was so tight. Hepton glanced at the pair again. Grey, puzzled faces, trying to look interested and concerned, unsure what to be concerned about.
Suddenly Fagin was at his shoulder.
‘What happened?’ Fagin trusted Hepton, and knew him to be fastidious.
Hepton shrugged his shoulders, feeling more impotent than he could say. ‘It just started snowing,’ he said, gesturing towards the screen. ‘That’s all.’
Fagin nodded and was gone, his reputation for competence on the edge of being wiped out. Like sticking a magnet on a floppy disk: it was that easy to lose it all in a moment.
‘Wait a minute!’ It was Nick Christopher’s voice.
‘Yes,’ someone else called from further off. ‘I’m getting something now. We’ve regained radio contact.’ There was a pause. ‘No, lost it again.’
The brass exchanged glances at this news, and both checked their watches. Hepton couldn’t believe what he was seeing. They seemed to be worrying about the time. All the while, a billion pounds’ worth of high-tech was whizzing about blindly, or crashing towards earth, and they were worrying about the time.
‘Are you sure you had it?’ yelled Fagin.
‘Well then, get it back!’
Despite the adrenaline gnawing at him, Hepton felt a sudden inner calm. All would be well. It was just a matter of trusting to fate and pushing the right buttons. Who was he kidding? Zephyr was lost for good.
Someone was standing behind him. He glanced back and saw Paul Vincent watching intently over his shoulder. Vincent was the youngest of the controllers, and the least confident.
‘Come to see how the professional does it, Paul?’ Hepton said, grinning nervously at the screen. He saw Vincent’s reflection smile wanly back. Then he began pushing buttons again, trying every combination possible. He had used up all the rational choices. Now he was trying the irrational, asking the computer to do the impossible.
Paul Vincent’s face was suddenly at his ear, though the young man’s eyes still appeared to be studying the monitor.
‘Listen, Martin, there’s something I want to show you.’
Vincent’s gaze remained fixed to the screen. His voice was low, just audible over the noise all around.
‘I can’t be sure,’ he said, ‘not a hundred per cent, at any rate. But I think there’s something happening up there. Either that or I’ve been doing something wrong. I had it on my screen a little while back.’
‘What do you mean, “something happening”?’
‘I’m not sure yet. Foreign data.’
‘Have you reported it?’
Perhaps that was why the brass were on the scene, and why they had looked momentarily scared.
‘Are we talking about interference?’ Hepton’s voice was low too.
‘I don’t know. I could make a wild guess, but I’m not sure it would help. I’d like you to confirm the data.’
‘When did it start?’
‘About half an hour ago.’
There was a sudden whoop, then cheers and some applause.
‘We’ve got her back!’
Hepton’s eyes went to his screen. They had indeed got her back. He was staring at a fuzzy but identifiable picture of Britain, taken from all that unbelievable distance. The image was out of focus, but they could soon put that right. What mattered was that Zephyr was working again.
‘Panic over,’ he said, turning now to face Paul Vincent. ‘So what about this foreign data?’
‘I’ve saved the readout on disk. Come and see.’
Paul spoke without blinking, and still softly, though the clamour around had grown. He was young but, Hepton knew, not an idiot. A first in astrophysics from Edinburgh, then research in Australia. No idiot, but not a hands-on expert either. It was his job–his sole responsibility and specialism–to monitor the space around Zephyr, seeking space trash, debris, meteorites, waves of interference. He’d never made a mistake when it had counted. Never.
‘Okay, Paul,’ Hepton said. ‘Give me a couple of minutes to put things right and I’ll come take a look.’
‘Thanks.’ Vincent looked relieved, like a man who needs reassuring that those pink elephants he can see really are there. Maybe they were, at that. He left Hepton’s side and returned to his distant console. Then again, maybe the kid was losing his touch. There had been a bout of sulking a week ago to do with some girlfriend or other. Hazard of the job. Shift work, odd hours, occasional days on end cooped up in the base. Sleeping four to a room in two sets of bunk beds. Hepton wasn’t sure he could take much more of it himself, despite the pleasures of earth-watching. Who ever thought to ask him if he were lonely? Nobody. He thought of Jilly, and wondered what she was doing while he sat here. He didn’t want to think what she was doing.
The brass were looking pleased about something. Well, they’d got Zephyr back, hadn’t they? One said something to the other, and Hepton, watching the man’s lips move, caught the words ‘three minutes forty’. The other nodded and smiled again. So they were discussing the length of time the satellite had been lost to its ground base. Three minutes and forty seconds. Longer than ever before. Almost too long.
Things were calming down all around. Fagin had gone to speak with the brass. They were in a huddle now, their eyes glinting. Hepton couldn’t see their lips any more. Well, it was none of his concern. He busied himself with putting his console right. He had pushed a few too many of the wrong buttons in the wrong sequences. Adjustments were needed. And then he would visit Paul Vincent on the other side of the room.
‘More coffee?’ It was Nick Christopher.
‘You put sugar in the first.’
‘An honest mistake. I’ll fetch you another.’
‘Don’t bother. What do you think went wrong back there?’
‘Put it down to a hiccup. Everything malfunctions from time to time. Between the two of us, I think Zephyr was cobbled together like its namesake, the old car. We’ll be lucky if it stays the course.’
‘It was out for three minutes forty seconds.’
‘The brass were timing it.’
‘Then maybe it was an exercise.’
‘I don’t think Paul Vincent would agree.’
‘Martin, you’re talking in riddles.’
‘Now what about that coffee?’
‘No sugar this time?’
‘Promise, no sugar.’
The brass had disappeared, and Fagin with them. Waving them off, probably. Hepton wondered what the weather was like outside. He could check by using the computer, but wouldn’t it be so much nicer just to walk outsid. . .
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