When Ian Rankin retired John Rebus in “Exit Music” fifteen years ago and implied we’d read the last of the detective, I was gutted, obviously, but also impressed by the audacity of the decision to relinquish such an iconic character.
Oh, sure; Rebus has aged in real time since his debut, and he’d reached that mandatory stage in life when carrying a badge was no longer realistic; but who amongst us wouldn’t have granted Rankin some leeway if he decided to ‘stop the clock,’ or retcon a few details if it meant Rebus stories in perpetuity.
Rebus returned five years later in “Standing in Another Man’s Grave.” I was thrilled, though a little weary, because there’s always a concern when a writer ‘goes back to the well.’ My trepidation was groundless, of course; and as it turns out, the last decade of Rebus novels have been some of the best Rankin has produced. “A Heart Full of Headstones” might even be the pinnacle.
As ever, the latest Rebus is plot-packed, but character-focused. This is a novel that rewards the long-time readers, who’ll cherish time spent with the well-established cast, though they’re delineated sublimely for any new readers jumping on board with 24th book in the series.
It’s framed by Rebus in the dock, charged with a crime Rankin doesn’t clarify; so the story rewinds to wheelchair-bound Morris Gerald Cafferty, Edinburgh’s former crime kingpin, requesting Rebus’s aid in locating a former associate-turned-embezzler named Jack Oram. Meanwhile, DI Siobhan Clarke’s investigation into a crooked cop brings DI Malcom Fox into the fold; and soon unveils a long, dark history of corruption within the Tynecastle constabulary, with connections to her former mentor Rebus.
Crime fiction has always celebrated the rule-breakers and benders; the vigilantes. In “A Heart Full of Headstones,” Rankin lays the groundwork for their comeuppance. Rankin is one of very few writers who views his protagonist without rose-tinted glasses.