Rebus returns to his old tricks
Declan Burkereviews Standing in Another Man's Grave, By Ian Rankin, Orion, 458pp, £18.99
Lee Child recently noted that, were he to die, his fans would mourn and quickly move on. Were he to kill off Jack Reacher, on the other hand, the result would be uproar.
It’s an echo of Arthur Conan Doyle’s experience when he was forced to resurrect Sherlock Holmes after that character’s apparently fatal plunge into the Reichenbach Falls. One of the strengths of the crime and mystery genre is that it encourages the development of a character over a series of novels, to the point where the reader comes to identify more with the hero than with his or her creator.
Thus Max Allan Collins can write “new” Mickey Spillane novels, and John Banville’s alter ego, Benjamin Black, can next year take the baton from Robert B Parker in writing about Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe.
Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh-based Insp John Rebus is equally iconic. Indeed, he is archetypal in his dour contempt for authority, his solitary nature, his fidelity to old-school policing methods and his fondness for the demon drink. Rankin didn’t exactly kill off Rebus at the end of Exit Music, the 17th novel in the series, from 2007, which was flagged at the time as the final Rebus novel. With his customary fidelity to the realities of Rebus’s experiences, Rankin put the inspector out to pasture, because a police detective of his age in Scotland would have reached retirement age.
Rebus requires no melodramatic resurrection for Standing in Another Man’s Grave, then, but it is notable that he is working, in a civilian capacity, in a cold-case department as the story begins.
Approached by a woman whose daughter disappeared many years earlier on the A9 dual carriageway, and who is convinced that the recent disappearance of another girl on the same route represents the latest in a series of abductions, Rebus agrees to persuade his former subordinate Siobhan Clarke to take the case to her current boss.
Meanwhile, with revised retirement legislation in place, Rebus is angling for a return to professional duties with the CID. His reputation should be sufficient to secure his place, but Rebus is under investigation by Malcolm Fox of Edinburgh’s internal-affairs department, which is probing his habit of consorting with known criminals and, in particular, Rebus’s old nemesis, Ger Cafferty.
With these twin hooks Rankin draws us into a thematically rich plot that evolves into a meditation on mortality and how best to assess a man’s worth. (The novel’s title is adapted from a song by Jackie Leven, a Scottish singer-songwriter with whom Rankin collaborated, and who died in 2011.)