The eighth of the Inspector Rebus novels, and cemented as a landmark entry in the Tartan Noir genre, Black and Blue is vintage Ian Rankin. Without question, it is one of the author’s best, and a premiere example of what the crime fiction genre can accomplish; more than awhodunit, it is a searing commentary on mid-nineties Scotland, told so palatably, so relentlessly, its themes and allusions are almost transient, but undeniably resonant. If only one Rankin novel is to survive the apocalypse, let’s hope it’s this one.
Rebus is working on four cases at once, trying to catch a killer he suspects of being the infamous Bible John – a killer whose exploits struck fear into the hearts of the population, until he suddenly vanished in less than a wisp of smoke. Decades later, a killer with an eerily similar modus operandi is stalking the streets, dubbed ‘Johnny Bible’ by the press, naturally. His exploits awaken the Bible John’s murderous instincts, who is determined to eliminate the ‘Upstart’ and ensure it is he who is remembered; not his unwelcome acolyte. At the same time, Rebus is tasked with leading the investigation into the murder of Allan Mitchison, who worked for one of the major oil rigs; all the while, Rebus is being shadowed by the media, who are determined to reveal a perceived miscarriage of justice decades earlier.
Rankin impressively entwines these plot threads, weaving in Rebus’s much-loved cast of colleagues and foes, and pushing Rebus to breaking point. Black and Blue exposes Rebus’s flaws, humanizes him beyond the point most writers would cross. Rebus is not especially likable, but the chinks in his armor are relatable. When you find yourself tutting at his drinking habits, or abhorring some of his attitudes and harsh wit, consider how you’d come across if the spotlight was turned on you, as Rankin shines his on Rebus. Whatever your thoughts on his personality, there is no denying Rebus’s doggedness. His resoluteness is laudable, even when it flares displeasingly.
There are flashier crime novels and authors to enjoy, but nobody can match the scope of Rankin’s plotting, nor his willingness to dig deep into his characters, and society as a whole. Black and Blue is, quite simply, stunning – even almost twenty years after its publication.