Rebus reaches the summit

 

Crime: Just over a year ago at the Gleneagles conference in Scotland, the G8 summit was dominated by the concept of Third World debt relief. Bush and Blair, along with Bob Geldof and Bono - "rock stars and men who would love to be them", according to Bianca Jagger - gave speeches and organised concerts while 200,000 people marched on Edinburgh, ensuring that police and security forces remained on watchful alert.

This setting, already a situation loaded with drama and intrigue, provides a fascinating backdrop for Ian Rankin's sixteenth John Rebus novel, a thriller which combines the page-turning appeal of a modern police procedural with the moral complexity of a political drama.

The Naming of the Dead begins with Rebus firmly sidelined from the Gleneagles action, even at a time when substantial amounts of extra police are being drafted in to ensure the participants won't be ripped limb from limb by the crowds demonstrating outside. It's a clever opening as the reader waits for that particular piece of drama which will bring Rebus back into the fold; the apparent suicide of an MP from the castle ramparts on the eve of the conference is the catalyst for the action that follows.

Contemporary crime writers thrive on creating protagonists who are as damaged and morally ambivalent as the killers they seek; the days of polite Belgian detectives and dotty old maids are long gone. Instead, the line which separates the good guys from the bad guys shifts and shakes and vanishes, leaving the reader with an unsettling notion of how justice is defined in the modern police force. Rebus belongs firmly to this new tradition, his character has been forming and changing over the last quarter century as he struggles with his demons, his relationships, his superiors, his moral dilemmas, his ex-wife, his daughter, his colleagues; everyone, in fact, who makes up the world he dominates.

As Rebus investigates the MP's death, the appearance of a suspected serial killer on the streets of Edinburgh adds tension to this gripping novel. Offering a more political perspective than usual, the author casts his eye over the events of that week while appearing to hold a particular disdain for those celebrities who attach themselves to popular causes. As they pass through the pages of the novel, the implication is that they don't particularly care what the conference is about as long as they can have their photographs taken and attend some parties. It's less "Make Poverty History" and more the Cannes Film Festival.

Rebus's sidekick, DS Siobhan Clarke, who first appeared in the fifth Rebus novel, The Black Book, has grown substantially as a character in the intervening years. A solid counterpart to Rebus, their apparent differences fuelling much of the dramatic tension between them, she is at her best here when Rankin allows her emotional life to come to the fore after her mother is attacked during the demonstrations. She's a strong yet vulnerable character and with Rebus's superiors increasingly asking him to consider retirement, one can't help but wonder whether the author sees a natural end to his most popular character, with a worthy successor already in place.

The Naming of the Dead By Ian Rankin Orion, 420pp. £17.99

John Boyne's fifth novel, Next of Kin, is published by Penguin