From novella to novel, Ian Rankin chooses to kick back and have some fun


BOOK OF THE DAY: John Connollyreviews Doors Openby Ian Rankin

THE NOVELLA is a peculiar beast. To play devil's advocate, it lacks both the succinctness of the short story and the scope of the novel, and often seems to provide a kind of halfway house for ideas that are too involved for the former, but too thin for the latter.

It also seems that the finest novellas eventually tend to be adopted by the larger family of the novel.

Do we really think of The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm, Heart of Darknessor The Outsideras novellas?

It's almost as if a novella, if it is successful, is destined to be perceived as a novel by default, like the little kid in school who boxes above his weight and is adopted by the big boys as one of their own.

On the other hand, the best of novellas (and I would number among them, in a less than exhaustive list), Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, and William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow, with an honourable mention for Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carolfor sentimental reasons), offer a distinctive pleasure for the reader, a promise of substance tempered by brevity, of fine meat carefully stripped of any residual fat.

It is a delicate balance to strike, though, and the very paucity of noteworthy titles, compared with the riches to be found among novels and short stories, suggests that the task of writing a novella is one that should be approached with a certain degree of caution.

It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that the decision by the New York Times's Sunday magazine to commission a number of serial novellas from well-known writers should have met with decidedly mixed results.

Michael Connelly, Michael Chabon and Benjamin Black have all struggled with the form, to varying degrees of success.

Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, for example, read less like a novella and more like a full-length novel from which every second chapter had been excised in an act of editorial mischief.

It managed the neat trick of being epic, short and dull, like a truncated version of Ben-Hur.

In fact, so far, one of the only authors to have emerged from the experiment with his reputation entirely intact has been Ian Rankin, in large part because he kept the tone of his novella light and the story simple.

Now Rankin, like the other selected authors who have preceded him, has chosen to publish his contribution, Doors Open, between covers.

Unlike a number of his fellows, though, he has considerably revised and extended the original, realising - as they, apparently, did not - that the novel form would be less forgiving of a serial novella's inevitable flaws than a weekly magazine.

The result is perhaps Rankin's most entertaining book yet, an old-school caper with a sting in its tail.

Three disaffected middle-class men from Edinburgh, "establishment guys of a certain age and cut", decide to liberate a number of neglected paintings from a warehouse owned by the National Gallery of Scotland so that they can hang them on their walls at home.

Their plan involves little more than walking in empty-handed and walking out again with the paintings under their arms, but the pleasure of the book lies in following these unlikely criminal masterminds as they execute their scheme and then immediately find themselves out of their depth in blackmail, torture, philistine Edinburgh hard men and Norwegian drug smugglers.

Having retired his detective, John Rebus, in last year's Exit Music, and with him the portentousness that had begun to hang over the series as it drew to its close, Doors Openis the work of a novelist who has chosen to kick back and have some fun.

It doesn't quite address the question of what Rankin will do now that he no longer has Rebus to kick around, to borrow a phrase from the late Richard Nixon, but it will keep readers pleasantly occupied until he does.

• John Connolly's most recent novel, The Reapers,was published earlier this year by Hodder & Stoughton

Doors OpenIan Rankin Orion 260pp, £18.99