“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.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Nobody Move, This Is A Review: STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE (Orion) by Ian Rankin
It’s an echo of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s experience when he was forced to resurrect Sherlock Holmes after that character’s apparently fatal plunge into the Reichenbach Falls. One of the strengths of the crime / mystery genre is that it encourages the development of a character over a series of novels, to the point where the reader comes to identify more with the hero rather than his or her creator. Thus Max Allan Collins can write ‘new’ Mickey Spillane novels, and John Banville’s alter ego, Benjamin Black, can next year take up the baton from Robert B. Parker in writing about Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe.
Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh-based Inspector John Rebus is equally iconic. Indeed, he is archetypal in his dour contempt of authority, his solitary nature, his fidelity to old-school policing methods and a fondness for the demon drink.
Ian Rankin didn’t exactly kill off Rebus at the end of Exit Music (2007), the 17th novel in the series and flagged at the time as the final Rebus novel. With his customary fidelity to the realities of Rebus’s experiences, Rankin put Rebus out to pasture, because a police detective of his age operating in Scotland would have reached retirement age.
Rebus requires no melodramatic resurrection for Standing in Another Man’s Grave, then, but it is notable that he is working, in a civilian capacity, in a ‘cold case’ department as the story begins. Approached by a woman whose daughter disappeared many years previously on the A9 motorway, and who is convinced that a recent disappearance of another girl on the same route represents the latest in a series of abductions, Rebus agrees to persuade his former subordinate, Siobhan Clarke, to take the case to her current boss.
Meanwhile, with revised retirement legislation in place, Rebus is angling for a return to professional duties with CID. His reputation should be sufficient to secure his place, but Rebus is under investigation by Malcolm Fox of Edinburgh’s internal affairs department, which is probing his habit of consorting with known criminals, and in particular Rebus’s old nemesis, Ger Cafferty.
With these twin hooks, Rankin draws us into a thematically rich plot which evolves into a meditation on mortality and how best to assess a man’s worth (the novel’s title is adapted from a song by Jackie Leven, a Scottish singer-songwriter with whom Rankin collaborated with in the past, and who died in 2011).
There’s a certain poignancy in the novel’s opening as Rebus, one of the most iconic fictional characters of our generation, fumbles through the ashes of various cold cases, and then proceeds to pursue an investigation largely on his own initiative, all on the basis that his previous dedication to the job has left him solitary and - in his own eyes - irrelevant in his retirement. Painfully aware of his limitations and his diminishing physical capability, Rebus rouses himself - much as he cajoles his battered old Audi into life every morning - for one last tilt at the windmills, convinced that CID’s new and improved policing methods lack the hands-on quality that requires police officers to get said hands dirty, to engage with the criminals and barter away some of your soul, if that’s what it takes to bring a killer to justice.
In that sense the novel is a commentary of sorts on the kind of crime / mystery narrative that has come to dominate popular culture in recent decades, that of the bright, shiny and utterly implausible CSI series and their multitude of spin-offs. Despite the best efforts of his young, social media-friendly colleagues, Rebus remains wedded to the old methods, just as Rankin eschews the easy options, plot-wise, to concentrate on his fascination with the character of Rebus, and how this previously immovable object is contending with the irresistible force of aging and death.
It’s a compelling tale, although fans of the Malcolm Fox stories - the internal affairs man has appeared in two novels published by Rankin subsequent to Rebus’s retirement, The Complaints (2009) and The Impossible Dead (2011) - may be taken aback by Rankin’s portrayal of Fox here. To date an entertainingly flawed character who appreciates that his peers are entitled to consider that his investigations of his colleagues are a treachery of sorts, Fox is here rather one-dimensional, a petty jobsworth determined that Rebus should be exposed as tainted due to his complex relationship with the criminal fraternity.
Perhaps Rankin is burning his bridges with Fox in preparation for more Rebus novels to come. If so, it’s a pity - but then, with Rebus, the ends always justify the means. – Declan Burke
Editor’s Note: The more eagle-eyed Rebus / Rankin fans among you will have spotted that I managed to confuse ‘Audi’ with ‘Saab’ for the purpose of this review. I am currently crouched in a corner wearing a pointy hat.
This review was first published in the Irish Times.