Monday, November 5, 2012

Ian Rankin and Rebus

Ian Rankin

Standing in Another Man’s Grave.  Ian Rankin.  2012.  Hachette. Pp458.  $36.99

Parts of this article are based on a telephone interview with Ian Rankin in September.  And a slightly different form of the article first appeared in the The Press Weekend Review, Christchurch, on November 3, 2012.

Ken Strongman

Ian Rankin has written many books, mainly of crime fiction.  Some have been stand-alone, others have featured Detective Malcolm Fox, but most have been centred around Inspector John Rebus, Rankin’s best known protagonist.  Rankin’s books have been translated into 36 languages, he has received four Dagger Awards from the Crime Writers’ Association and in 2004 received America’s Edgar Award.  At another level entirely, he has also received honorary degrees from five Universities and has been awarded the OBE.

Rebus:  ‘…a puzzle in which words are represented by a combination of pictures and individual letters…’  Historically ‘…an ornamental device associated with a person to whose name it seemingly alludes.’  (N.O.D.E.)  It was a very clever name to choose for a character that is definitely an intriguing puzzle although Rankin’s books are no ornamental devices.

John Rebus is a fine old-fashioned cop, but is also a decidedly awkward bugger.  He solves crimes but annoys nearly everyone he touches. Like so many memorable fictional detectives there is more than a hint of self-destructiveness about him and he cannot stop himself from a sort of cynical directness.  With Rebus there is no innuendo and no hidden messages; WYSIWYG, with brutal frankness.  Integrity abounds and comparisons are inevitable with Mankell’s Wallendar (more angst-filled)in Sweden, Nesbo’s Harry Hole (more self-destructive) in Norway and McBride’s D S Logan (grittier and tougher)in Aberdeen.  Interestingly, however, when Ian Rankin created Rebus, more than a quarter of a century ago, he had read very little crime fiction.  But he had long been intrigued by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.

Rebus is nothing like Rankin’s other Edinburgh cop, Malcolm Fox, who polices the police, particularly police like Rebus.  No-one likes an internal affairs man, but a few do at least respect Rebus.  And thinking of Edinburgh, the city is the other main character in Rankin’s books.  Read them and one comes to know Edinburgh without ever visiting it.

Rankin’s latest book, ‘Standing in Another Man’s Grave’ very cleverly brings Rebus back from his retirement, five years ago in “Exit Music”. This seemed like the end of the line for Rebus, 25 years after he began in “Knots and Crosses”.  But here he is again, even more like himself than ever, working as a civilian for the police, dealing with cold cases.  One of these cases begins to lead forwards rather than backwards, pointing to a series of disappearances.  Suddenly, Rebus has managed to inveigle his way back as a consultant to his old unit.  He is working for Siobhan Clarke, who used to work for him and whom, to some extent, he created in his own likeness.  She is therefore simultaneously very pleased and yet horrified to see him back, much as he would have been in similar circumstances.

Meanwhile, Rebus’s old nemesis, Edinburgh ex-crime boss Big Ger Cafferty keeps dropping round to see him to persuade him out for a pint.  This is exactly the sort of thing that makes Malcolm Fox (who also appears in this book) even more suspicious of Rebus than he already is.  Neither does it please Rebus much; he still treats Cafferty with a sort of contempt laced with a clear understanding of what drives him.

Rankin says that the idea for this book occurred to him well before he realized that he could bring Rebus back into it.  He wanted to write what he describes as a ‘road book’, one that concentrated on the A9, which runs up the length of Scotland.  He also wanted to explore the lives and motivations of parents who had lost a child in mysterious and unexplained circumstances.  He manages both in “Standing in Another Man’s Grave”.

Rankin’s way of bringing Rebus out of retirement was practicality itself.  He had him retire at a time when at 60 he had to retire because of the requirements of the Scottish police.  Then a few years later, as a cost (pension) saving exercise, they put the retirement age back to 65 or more.  So Rebus could not only be working as a civilian helper to the police, but could even apply for his old job.  This was just as well, because as Rankin puts it “It’s work that keeps Rebus going”

It is great to have John Rebus back and very clever of Rankin to have found a way to do it.  As much as anything, it seems to have been prompted by the death of Jackie Leven, a singer-songwriter friend of Rebus.  They had even toured and recorded a show together.  The title ‘Standing in Another Man’s Grave’ was inspired by one of Leven’s songs.   Rebus is clearly one of the great creations of crime fiction.  He is anarchic, maverick, independent, cynical, self-destructive, direct and because of all this, might seem flawed.  In short, he is the puzzle that his name suggests and which draws one inexorably to the next book.

As well as sheer, extremely well-written entertainment, Ian Rankin’s crime fiction is driven by his fascination with the nature of good and evil. The progression of his novels represents his exploration of the balance between the two and of the horrors that seem always to be there beneath the surface.  He even sees his city, Edinburgh, as representing this tension.  The tourist sees an elegant, nicely appointed city.  Under the surface, unspeakable things occur, as they do everywhere.  For which, we need Rebus to keep going.

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