THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD is the second in Ian Rankin’s series of novels about Malcolm Fox, who is a police officer with the Scottish Professional Ethics and Standards Department, which is the equivalent of internal affairs, colloquially known as ‘the Complaints’.
Inspector Malcolm Fox and his ‘Complaints’ team of Sergeant Tony Kaye and Constable Joe Naysmith are based in Edinburgh. The novel opens with their arrival in Kirkcaldy, Fife, where they have come to interview a police officer, Detective Paul Carter, who has been found guilty of misconduct after Carter’s uncle, himself a former police officer, blew the whistle.
Carter was convicted of asking for sexual favours, and generally threatening women, and Fox and the Complaints are in Fife to discover the extent to which Carter’s behaviour was covered up by his colleagues. On interviewing Paul Carter’s uncle, Alan Carter, Fox realises that the retired policeman is conducting an informal investigation into the suspicious death of a radical lawyer in the mid-1980s, this at the request of an Edinburgh-based solicitor. When Alan Carter is subsequently discovered dead, in what appears to be a suicide, Fox suspects a conspiracy and a cover-up, especially as the gun Carter uses to kill himself doesn’t officially exist …
It’s difficult to review an Ian Rankin novel without referring at some point to Inspector Rebus, so it’s probably best to get that out of the way first. I know many people will disagree, but I actually prefer Malcolm Fox to Inspector Rebus. He’s a far more balanced and nuanced character than Rebus, who was very much a black-and-white, us-versus-them kind of character.
When I read the first Malcolm Fox novel, THE COMPLAINTS, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Fox. He seemed a milder version of Rebus, and I wondered why Rankin would offer the reader a similar kind of story, and investigator, while making his new protagonist less confrontational, and therefore less dramatic, character. I believed that Rankin could have challenged himself more, but it took THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD to persuade me that that is exactly what Rankin did.
It’s probably fair to say, I think, that Malcolm Fox is a more difficult character to write than Rebus. Fox is a complex man, but he is essentially good-natured; he is also a team player, whereas Rebus was, as the conventions of the police procedural often demand, very much a loner. Moreover, the nature of Fox’s job - a cop investigating other cops - gives him a depth that Rebus’s job didn’t confer. Fox is not a crusader for a perfect police force; he understands that people are prone to making mistakes, and that cops are no less likely than civilians to fall foul of human faults and foibles. Neither does he set himself up as a shining example of what a policeman should be. In his personal life, Fox is as guilty of making mistakes as anyone else. By the same token, having been seconded to ‘the Complaints’, Fox is determined to do the best job he possibly can. If that means that he will earn the opprobrium of his peers for investigating their wrongdoing, then that is a price he is prepared to pay.
One of the most likeable aspects of the novel as a whole is its understated tone. One example: Fox and his team of Kaye and Naysmith. Most writers, with a team of three to fill out, would have made one of the team a woman, if only for politically correct reasons, and especially as the majority of crime fiction readers are women. Instead, Rankin gives us three relatively ordinary blokes who aren’t particularly sexist or politically correct, who enjoy friendly banter and pass their days in one another’s company with the minimum of friction and conflict. Given the pressure the trio are under, and especially as they are so despised by their peers, there’s an endearing quality to their understated mini-brotherhood.
That understated tone also extends to Rankin’s style. Here he writes in a pleasingly crisp, unfussy style, and seems content to allow the story emerge in what appears to be an organic fashion, rather than forcing the issue by giving proceedings a fake sense of urgency. The chapters unfold at a languid pace, and yet this belies the fact that there is plenty by way of drama and event being recorded.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is its historical backdrop. According to Rankin, that backdrop is rooted in reality. When I interviewed Rankin recently , he had this to say:
“It’s based on a real case. The lawyer found dead in his car is absolutely accurate, it happened in 1985, although in the real-life case he was a Glasgow-based lawyer rather than an Edinburgh lawyer. His name was Willie MacRae. And all that stuff in the book, the Dark Hand Commando, the letter-bombs, the anthrax - that’s all taken from the newspapers of the time.”Despite the sectarianism of the Celtic-Rangers football clashes, we don’t normally associate Scotland with extreme nationalism, and certainly not with paramilitary terrorism. THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD offers a glimpse of a time and place not so far from Northern Ireland in the 1980s, and suggests - explicitly, at one point - that the situations weren’t all that different. The real difference, Rankin suggests, is that the Scottish equivalent(s) of the Irish paramilitary groups were far less organised and ruthless, and were quickly infiltrated by British secret services and Special Branch.
By the same token, there are contemporary resonances to be taken from THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD in terms of Northern Ireland, not least the fact that former paramilitaries wind up democratically legitimate and working in government.
Ultimately, I give THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD a very warm recommendation, to existing Ian Rankin fans who have yet to take plunge into the Malcolm Fox series, and also to those wondering why Ian Rankin is so highly regarded. It showcases his ability to construct an intriguing police procedural plot and people it with believable and interesting characters, and to provide a page-turning entertainment while still investing his story with a thoughtful critique of contemporary society. - Declan Burke