The tagline emblazoned on the cover of the twentieth John Rebus novel reads REBUS: SAINT OR SINNER? – but longtime readers will know Rebus is far more enigmatic than that. Still, the discrepancy between those two extremes has never been of greater focus than in SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE, where Ian Rankin explores Rebus’s past, allowing us a glimpse of a time before KNOTS AND CROSSES, when the rules and regulations of police work were lenient and, occasionally, wafted towards entirely unethical.
In his early years Rebus worked with a clan of officers in Summerhall police station who named themselves The Saints of the Shadow Bible. Rankin never deliberately labels them as good or bad – life is not as simple as black and white, after all – and presents them simply as cops doing the job the way they saw fit, bending – and occasionally breaking – the rules when they deemed pertinent. But years later, in the present day, a year before the Scottish independence referendum, the Solicitor General has order an investigation into a case The Saints were involved in – and Rebus find himself assessing the methodologies and mindset he too was guilty of back then, all the while handling a case featuring the daughter of a devious London-based businessman and the son of the Scottish Justice Minister (who also so happens to be the head of the ‘Yes to Independence’ campaign.
Rankin weaves an enthralling narrative as always, seamlessly shifting from one case to the other. He has accumulated quite the cast now – Malcolm Fox and Siobhan Clarke and Rebus all take center stage at various points in the story – and it’s fascinating reading Rebus interact with his ex-protege Clarke in her new role as his superior, and with Fox, who he’s never had anything but unpleasant interactions with. There’s an underlining respect the two of them; whether that has the potential to blossom into a genuine friendship seems unlikely.
Before his first retirement, Rebus was never anything but effectively archaic. Out of retirement – albeit with the axe still looming over his head (his age means his return to the force will be only a brief reprieve from civilian life) – Rebus has lost some of his panache. He’s not a young man anymore; he can’t spar with villains, and can’t keep up with the monumental technological strides. But he’s as deeply compelling as always; a man I wouldn’t want to call my friend, but would always want on my side.