The last few books I have read have been by authors whose previous novels I had encountered. To differing degrees, their newest output left me with a feeling of them being stuck in a rut: familiar characters, backdrop, and plot, all resulting in less than inspiring reading. So, how is it that Ian Rankin’s latest book – featuring familiar characters, backdrop and plot – seems so fresh and full of life by comparison?
Perhaps the simplest explanation is that the main character, John Rebus, is so well drawn and so realistic. He is neither a superman, nor a super intellect. He is a smart policeman who treads his own path. I find that enticing. Funnily enough, in this book, we not only get more of Rebus’ back story, but we also get him working alongside Malcolm Fox, a central character in another of Rankin’s series. That interaction could have been a disaster, but turns out to be a major attraction to the book.
The story, as usual, is multi-layered. It starts with what looks like a simple road accident, and coincides with Malcolm Fox investigating an old case (of thirty years vintage) that Rebus and his onetime colleagues handled: that of a murder accused who escaped conviction due to police incompetence or dirty tricks. With the law having been changed to allow the trail to be rerun, the investigation is focusing on the actions of the police. Was Rebus involved? What did he know? There are many questions, and asking them sets off different reactions.
Rankin works in to his book the Scottish independence referendum, the changing face of Scottish policing, and several other contemporary references. But they do not obscure the fine characterization, and the sharp dialogue. Rankin is a sort of Elmore Leonard variant, where the conversations drive much of the plot, and deliver a lot of the atmosphere. There are some moments of dark humor in the exchanges between Rebus and the world he inhabits.
This is a beautifully crafted book, by an author working at the top of his trade. If you have any interest in crime fiction, you should read this. No book is perfect, but this comes close. Terrific.