Review: A Song For the Dark Times by Ian Rankin

Unlike some writers who want their heroes to remain supermen forever, Ian Rankin has paid attention to John Rebus’s years, and found stories to exploit them. Not that Rebus’s mortality is the focal point of “A Song For the Dark Times;” but it’s always there on the periphery. In his twilight years, with his physicality and raw machismo dwindling, every flash of violence has greater consequence. We’re not just worried about Rebus taking a punch; we’re worried about what happens when he throws one, too.

There is something sadly discomforting in witnessing the irascible former maverick inspector in decline, forced into a downstairs apartment because Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease has made the climb up to his series-enduring tenement in Marchmont untenable. Not that he intends to putter away his golden years: Rebus has commandeered a selection of unsolved case files. Fodder for another time, however. Any plans Rebus has to reopen old murder files is interrupted by a call from his daughter Samantha. Her partner Keith — father to their daughter Carrie — is missing.

While Rebus journeys to the very far north of Scotland — inserting himself into the investigation of which Samantha is the primary suspect — detectives Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox work a murder case involving a very wealthy, and very well connected, international student in Edinburgh. Rankin builds intrigue like a symphony conductor. The cases overlap through several key witnesses and suspects, but their connection, although obviously manufactured for the sake of the narrative, doesn’t feel contrived.

As ever, Rankin’s themes are timely and prescient. Here he tackles the subject of Scottish land ownership, the festering desire for retribution, and the toxicity of secrets, while peeling back layers of the country’s past. Much of the novel revolves around Camp 1033, a WWII internment camp that housed ‘aliens’ and captured soldiers. Ignorance on my part, but I had no idea such camps existed in Scotland; once again Rankin provides a history lesson alongside a cracking yarn.

Tautly constructed, compulsively paced, and consistently arresting. Routine brilliance from Ian Rankin. He delivers, every time.

ISBN: 9781409176985
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 320
Available: 29th September 2020
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co

Review: In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin

9781409176893 (1)Classic Rankin — top-notch police procedure  merged with deft characterisation.

Having conjured twenty-two novels worth of exploits for the irascible and incomparable John Rebus over the last thirty years, it would seem entirely reasonable for Ian Rankin to begin repeating himself, or for his series to start running out of steam. Indeed, even Rebus references the “managed decline” of his post-retirement life in In a House of Lies, and his treatment of the Saab that’s been as much an ever-present in these books as Rebus himself.  But even as Rebus gradually succumbs to a lifetime of bad habits — not just the drinking and smoking, but integrating himself into trouble, and his recurrent dalliances with vigilantism Rankin’s novels go from strength to strength as he shows a greater willingness to dive deeper into the moral ambiguity of his protagonist. Rebus was always an anti-hero — hard as nails, roguish; but always convinced of his own moral code — but as he faces us to his own morality, with the burden of empty years spent ruminating on his actions, Rankin paints a powerful portrait of a man lacking the assuredness that defined him.

Rebus’s ‘old school’ methods are thrust back into the spotlight when the skeletal remains of a private investigator are discovered more than a decade after the man’s disappearance  in a location that was, apparently, searched during the initial investigation. Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke is part of the new inquiry, tasked with combing through the mistakes of the original case; while Malcolm Fox, formerly of Professional Standards, has the job of specifically looking for misdemeanours, of which there were evidently many — several of which can be tied back to Rebus’s nemesis, the wily, power-hungry crime boss, ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty.

Rankin’s insight into character and motive is as keen as ever. He deftly cuts between his three primary leads as they follow wonderfully woven, unspooled threads that eventually tie together. As always, the resolution is incredibly satisfying, but is almost besides the point: we’re here for the characters, especially Rebus, whose wit remains as razor-sharp as ever. In A House of Lies encapsulates precisely why Rankin is the grandmaster of the genre, and why Rebus remains one of its most iconic and complex creations.

ISBN: 9781409176893
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 384
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 4-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin

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Although John Rebus’s  name is emblazoned on the cover of Rather Be the Devil, Ian Rankin’s ensemble cast is becoming increasingly intrinsic to the irascible detective’s world. And that’s not a bad thing. Thanks to the distinct personalities of Rebus, Siobhan Clarke, Malcolm Fox, and two Edinburgh gangsters – Big Ger Cafferty and Darryl Christie – this is a multilayered whodunnit that will keep even the sharpest readers asking questions until the very last page. Rest assured, loyalists: Rankin and Rebus remain as peerless as ever.

Rebus’s mortality has been hinted at in recent novels, but in Rather Be the Devil, it’s like a slap in the face. There is no avoiding it. Our mate Rebus isn’t doing so well. Prone to violent fits of coughing, he’s given up the cigarettes and limited his boozing. Which isn’t to say he’s a changed man. Rebus is like a dog with a bone; once he latches on, he won’t let go. The bone, in this instance, is an unsolved murder dating back forty years. Maria Turquand was murdered in her hotel room on the night a famous rock star and his entourage were staying in the same establishment. It’s stuck in Rebus’s mind for all that time, marinating. And now, retired, free as a bird, he uses his contacts at Police Scotland – hello Siobhan! – to access the file.

Meanwhile, Darryl Christie – Edinburgh’s wannabe criminal kingpin – has been viciously attacked outside his home. Is this a new player making a run at Christie’s territory? Or an old enemy looking to move back in? Fox and Clarke are on the case, which of course, clashes with Rebus’s seemingly unrelated and unsanctioned investigation.

Throughout Rather Be the Devil, Rankin flits confidently between characters, painting a portrait of modern day Edinburgh as he weaves a smart, brisk mystery. He combines Rebus’s hard-nosed cynicism with moments of real sentimentality, which coalesce into an exceptionally good read, with an ending that suggests Rebus it won’t be too long between drinks before and his cohorts reunite.

 This is vintage Rebus and Rankin. It’s always such a treat to enter the mind of one of the most interesting personalities in crime fiction. Stay healthy, John!

ISBN: 9781409159414
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 320
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 3-Nov-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin

Mortal-Causes.jpgA spectacularly savage opening gives way to a rather undercooked mystery in Mortal Causes, the sixth Rebus novel. Immensely readable as always, this time round the plot lacks some of the panache and the wonderful characterisation that defined and elevated Rankin’s earlier novels.

With sectarian violence as the backdrop, Mortal Causes spotlights Rebus’s investigation into the death of a man tortured and executed in an underground medieval cellar. His only cluses are a tattoo on the corpse’s wrist and a cryptic inscription scratched in the dirt – but as he digs deeper he discovers a connection to Edinburgh’s criminal kingpin, Cafferty, and a diabolical terrorist plot. Meanwhile, Rebus’ relationship with his girlfriend Patience continues to sputter along, although the introduction of a psychotic, jealous and obsessive woman adds a bit of drama to the mix – though this plotline never really goes anywhere, and unfortunately peters out.

There are the requisite twists and turns, and Rebus’ investigations leads to a frenzied climax that’ll have readers hurriedly turning the pages — but it’s not a Rebus novel that’ll live long in the memory. Mortal Causes is a solid, functional procedural, but far from Rankin’s unsurpassable best.

ISBN: 9780752883588
Format: Paperback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 7-Aug-2008
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Resurrection Men by Ian Rankin

ResurrectionWhen DI John Rebus hurls a cup of tea at his superior and ex-lover Gill Templar, he is sentenced to purgatory in the form of Tulliallan; the Scottish Police College, where rookies learn the ropes, and senior offices are offered a final shot at redemption. Embarking on a team behaviour course led by DCI Tennant, Rebus is introduced to five anti-authority types, who put his own exploits to shame: Tam Barclay, Allan Ward, Francis Gray, Stu Sutherland, and Jazz McCullough. Together, they are tasked with investigating the long unsolved murder of Eric Lomax – a case Rebus has intimate knowledge of. Coincidence? Rebus doesn’t think so. Because he, too, is a chess piece in a game being played by his superiors…

Back in Edinburgh, newly-promoted DS Siobhan Clark has been assigned the case Rebus left behind: the murder of art dealer Edward Marber, who has ties to Rebus’s nemesis, Ger Cafferty. The case isn’t quite as open-and-shut as the evidence might suggest; but with Siobhan having acquired a taste for promotion, will she comply with the wants of the powers-that-be, or dig deeper to expose the truth, as her mentor Rebus was so prone…

Ian Rankin writes the most inventive crime novels, and Resurrection Men is no exception. Atmospheric and engrossing, the novel throws Rebus and Clarke into choppy waters and teases salvation, only to plunge them in deeper, taunting them; for the reader, it’s delightful. Put simply, it’s another darn fine crime novel, and earns Rankin another star against his name.

ISBN: 9780752883656
Format: Paperback
Pages: 512
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 7-Aug-2008
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Black and Blue by Ian Rankin

Black and Blue.jpgThe 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.

Review: Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin

Dogs in the WildIn many respects, Even Dogs in the Wild feels like Ian Rankin’s magnum opus; like he’s been building towards this moment, this novel, since he started writing all those years ago. It brings together many of his greatest characters – John Rebus (of course); Siobhan Clarke; Malcolm Fox; and Ger Cafferty, to name just a few – and pits them against a dark, violent, enigmatic foe, who is targeting the Edinburgh underbelly’s most fearsome players.

Rebus is retired now, of course. Like Michael Connelly, Rankin made the decision long ago to age his protagonist in real time, and as his inaugural readership has aged, so too has the character. But Rebus’s blood runs blue – take away the badge and the official responsibility, but he’s still the same man; he retains that insatiable thirst for justice, and to bury his nose in other people’s business. So when Cafferty is targeted by this mysterious gunman, it doesn’t take much to rope Rebus into the investigation. His relationship with Cafferty has taken an interesting turn in recent years since his retirement. It would be a mistake to call them friends, but the animosity between the two has dissipated now that their societal roles are opaque. So, too, has Rebus’s relationship with Malcolm Fox turned into something more reminiscent of friendship; a mutual respect has garnered in the years since Fox was with the complaints (internal affairs) and was investigating the perennially insubordinate Rebus. In fact, the first sparks of true mateship starting to flicker…

So, there is plenty for veteran readers to enjoy; an added dimension that newcomers might not wholly appreciate, but will undoubtedly value the added texture of Rebus’s world. Thankfully, the core mystery itself – Who is the killer? What’s his beef? – is packed with twists and turns, and revelations that’ll leave readers floored. After 20 years of writing crime, Rankin is a grandmaster of the genre, and his year’s sabbatical has reinvigorated his already-stellar storytelling flair. While I was saddened when Rebus retired, my greatest fear was that he might later be shoehorned into subsequent novels; his name carries a ton of cache, after all. I’m thrilled that hasn’t been the case. Rebus still belongs in this world, and it’s clear Rankin has plenty more to say about the character, and through his perspective.

Even Dogs in the Wild is a brilliant novel; a page-turner with great depth. If this is what we get when Ian Rankin takes a year off to recharge his batteries, I’d be content to wait two years between novels; not happy, no way; but willing to comply.

Review: Tooth and Nail by Ian Rankin

Tooth and NailThe third Rebus novel shifts proceedings from Edinburgh to London, with the irascible Detective Inspector commandeered by Scotland Yard to assist with the hunt for the serial killer stalking the streets. Not that Rebus is particularly versed in this form of policing; his only experience with such a killer featured in Knots & Crosses, which turned out to be more personal than professional, and even then, he spent much of the novel ignoring obvious clues. But it’s all about perspective, and his London brethren feel a he has something to add, and who is John Rebus to argue?

The Wolfman – so named because the first victim was found dumped in Wolf Street – is a vicious, cannibalistic killer, whose tendencies and proclivities have thus far defied explanation. When Rebus joins London copper George Flight’s team, it’s clear they has run a diligent and committed investigation without any tangible result. Cue Rebus: the fly in the ointment, though not always intentionally. Rebus hopes to get under the killer’s skin – rile The Wolfman to encourage a moment of zealousness, and therefore a mistake – but in doing so, he endangers the lives of those around him, making himself, and them, a potential target. Though his confidants are hardly innocent themselves; the young profiler aiding him has secrets of her own, and Flight growls increasingly wary of his investigative style.

Tooth & Nail emphasizes Rebus’s status as an outsider, in this instance making it overt, and diminishing his role to a small fish in a big pond. He is less cocksure; unfamiliar with the terrain, his allies far away, facing up against a psychotic unlike any he’s ever seen. We genuinely feel Rebus has bitten off more than he can chew here, and it’s enthralling reading as he closes in on the killer; adrenaline-fuelled too, as the stakes are raised dramatically in the climactic scenes.

Three novels into his series, and Ian Rankin was hitting his stride. The fourth, Strip Jack, marked a new phase, as the author began transporting his characters into a more realistic Scotland. Gone were the fictional police stations and pubs. Moving forward, the world of Rebus paralleled the real Edinburgh.

Review: Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin

Rankin Life or Death - LargeIan Rankin wrote two non-Rebus novels between Knots and Crosses and Hide and Seek, and it shows. In the second John Rebus novel there is an augmented confidence to his prose, a definite refinement of his storytelling, as Rankin’s journey towards becoming an acclaimed International Bestseller continued.

In Hide and Seek, Rebus investigates the death of a junkie, whose body is discovered in a ramshackle Edinburgh squat. On paper, it’s hardly a case worthy of the newly promoted John Rebus; but the arrangement of the body – spread-eagled like a cross, positioned between two burned-down candles, and beside a five-pointed star painted on the wall – piques his curiosity. How does the dead man’s last word – “Hide!” connect?  Is this murder the work of a devil-worshipping cult? What sordid evil has risen from the city’s underbelly? And how long has it existed? Rebus quickly discovers its darkness permeates the highest echelons of Edinburgh.

Rankin has since admitted Hide and Seek was his second attempt at updating Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hide, which is a grand ideal, but thankfully not one that straddles the text too heavily (despite each chapter opening with a quote from Stevenson’s work). At its core, Hide and Seek is a taut, snaking mystery, punctuated with the gallows humour that made Rebus so resonant in his debut. It lacks the complexity of its successors, but it is a superb demonstration of a writers’ development.

Review: Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin

Knots and CrossesThis October will see the release of Even Dogs in the Wild, the 20th John Rebus novel. To celebrate, this week I re-read the first book in the series, Knots and Crosses, which I first read in High School, about twelve years ago now. And while it doesn’t have the depth, or the deftness, of the later Rebus novels, Rankin’s talent is there for all to see. Knots and Crosses is unrefined, but still taut, and a true page-turner.

A series of killings of young girls has Edinburgh reeling. John Rebus, an ex-SAS trooper, now police detective, is one of many investigators on the case, doggedly chasing up leads, but demonstrating an unfathomable lack of foresight as he ignores the most obvious of clues. Not that Rebus is cognizant of his failings; this is a man who is deeply scarred by his training, having suffered a nervous breakdown as a result, then a divorce. Rebus isn’t the unshakable crime-fighter we’re accustomed to; he’s cursedly human. He buries bad memories, drinks too much, and displays an over-reliance on sarcasm to shroud his true feelings. In other words, he’s just like us, only he carries a badge, enabling his mission for justice.

Unfortunately for Rebus, these murders have a personal connection, and bringing an end to Edinburgh’s terror will require delving into those long-repressed memories with the help of his brother, who has a sordid past of his own. And all the while there’s a reporter circling, looking to unleash his own brand hell on the Rebus’.

Knots and Crosses demonstrates Rankin’s storytelling finesse. This is a wonderfully spun mystery, with evocative snapshots into Rebus’s past, laying the foundation for the series that will soon eclipse twenty novels. Rankin’s prose is distinct; while I have a penchant for Chandler-esque writing, Rankin’s is a tad more ostentatious, but it works. He’s more of a stylist than the likes of Connelly or Child, two of my favourite crime writers, and it’s fascinating purely from a craftsmanship perspective how his tone has developed during his career.

A very fine debut for Inspector John Rebus, Knots and Crosses is a novel that impressed second time round. My only lingering regret is that October is a long way off. Why’d I remind myself of how good Rankin is? I might dig into his backlist a few more times before Even Dogs in the Wild.