‘WHO DECIDES right from wrong?’ runs the strap-line on Ian Rankin’s latest novel, and the answer, of course, is Ian Rankin. The pre-eminent UK crime writer of his generation, Rankin is the author of 24 novels, 17 of them featuring Edinburgh’s Inspector Rebus (now retired), as well as collections of short stories, novels published under the pseudonym Jack Harvey and the non-fiction Rebus’s Scotland: A Personal Journey. Along the way Rankin has won numerous prizes and earned an OBE.
Doors Open (2008), his first standalone thriller in over a decade, was first published in serial form in the New York Times , while A Cool Head was published earlier this year as part of the Quick Reads project.
The constraints of the serialised story are such, however, that Rankin fans are anticipating The Complaints as Rankin’s first true post-Rebus novel. Its protagonist is Malcolm Fox, head of Edinburgh’s Professional Standards Unit, which operates under the aegis of complaints and conduct. In layman’s terms, Fox leads a team dedicated to internal affairs, investigating police who bend or break the rules.
The novel opens with Fox, shortly after copperfastening his case against Glen Heaton, a notoriously shady copper, being charged with the covert investigation of Jamie Breck, a colleague of Heaton – Breck’s credit card details have shown up on an Australian website trading in child pornography.
Once he has taken on the case, however, Fox’s professional life – in tandem with his personal life, in which his sister’s boyfriend has been murdered – starts to unravel at an alarming pace, even as personal and professional concerns begin to mesh.
As is usually the case with Rankin, the plot is more layered than a tiramisu and here offers a depth that incorporates the impact of the credit crunch and the subsequent collapse of property values in Scotland.
Fox, as befits the protagonist of a dyspeptic police procedural, quickly finds himself squeezed by an unholy alliance composed of big business, corrupt coppers and the criminal fraternity.
The pacing is deceptively sedate, which is appropriate to Fox’s investigative style – a taciturn and self-reliant loner despite his position as head of a unit, and a divorcé who has issues with alcohol, he is nevertheless decent, dogged and cautiously thorough.
While the story itself has plenty of twists and turns and features the kind of detailed, unflattering depiction of Edinburgh that Rankin’s fans have come to expect, there is a growing sense of ennui, even as the story’s gathering momentum provides a page-turning quality.
Moreover, the plot hinges on a gamble taken by Fox and Breck’s foes, a gamble that is predicated on a rudimentary psychological evaluation. For a writer of Rankin’s quality, this is a ruse akin to deploying a deus ex machina and it lacks the power to bring the various strands together with his customary cohesion.
By the end the abiding feeling is one of disappointment that Rankin, with his reputation and (presumably) fortune already secure, wasn’t prepared to take more chances in terms of style, subject matter or narrative.
That The Complaints delivers what Rankin’s legions of fans have come to expect is undeniable, but it’s also true that those fans are entitled to expect more from one of crime writing’s standard bearers. – Declan Burke
This review first appeared in the Irish Times
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.