COMING soon to a multiplex near you is Under The Skin, with Scarlett Johansson as a serial killer prowling the A9. There must be something about that road that presumes pathological intent, because the serial killer in Ian Rankin’s new novel – and yes, cue fanfares, Rebus is back, and not just with Siobhan Clarke and Big Ger Cafferty but Malcolm Fox too – has almost exactly the same hunting ground.
For at least half of the book, it doesn’t look as though there’s a serial killer at all. Four women have gone missing, but the first vanished in 1999, the second two years later, and the third in 2008. For some reason none of those disappearances has been linked: right now, they’re just names in a missing person’s file without any proof, or even any hint, of foul play.
At the Serious Crimes Review Unit, cold cases are the only kind that John Rebus is allowed to concern himself with, and the missing girls aren’t even that. He’s 62 now and retired, his warrant card has been taken away and so has much of his purpose in life. Sifting through the musty-smelling storage boxes of evidence in long-forgotten cases is all that his working life has to offer, and it’s nowhere near enough.
Maybe that’s the reason he still goes along for a drink with Cafferty when he calls round once a fortnight: for that frisson of contact with Edinburgh’s underworld. It’s the mark of Rankin’s confidence with his characters that he doesn’t feel the need to explain Rebus’s motivation here, even though it is crucial to the plot – for it is Rebus’s willingness to associate with known criminals that brings him to the attention of Malcolm Fox, the head of the Lothian and Borders’ internal affairs department and the main protagonist of Rankin’s last two novels.
“There’s a file on you goes all the way back to the 1970s,” Fox tells Rebus. “In fact, to call it a ‘file’ is doing it an injustice: it takes up a whole shelf.” By the time they’ve met, though, it is already becoming clear that Rankin is moving away from the option of getting Fox to investigate one of those myriad cases in which Rebus bent the law to get a result. Slowly, those missing girl cases are starting to become interconnected – particularly after yet another girl goes missing on the A9. This time there’s a further twist: her mother’s partner is Frank Hammell, a West Lothian gangster whose own path has doubtless been crossed in the past by Cafferty, and probably violently too.
The set-up is slow, although, on re-reading, necessary. Gradually, the pieces are being moved into place. Whether it is because we have grown accustomed to seeing police work through Fox’s eyes or because Rebus is increasingly ill at ease in this new police order of computers and clean-nosed, pushily ambitious young cops, Rebus’s return to crime-busting is distinctly low-key. Maybe he has been a bit of an anachronism for the past decade, but now it’s blatantly obvious.
No longer, after all, can he breeze into Gayfield Square police station to meet Siobhan Clarke: some younger uniformed officer on the desk will insist on a visitor’s badge. He can’t even park legally outside, much less interrogate anyone with his customary robustness or obtain a warrant to search their premises. Only when the police finally realise they are hunting a serial killer does he become anything other than an embarrassing throwback to an era when mavericks were not just tolerated but even occasionally admired.
What turns these cold cases into a hot search for a serial killer is the fact that most of the missing girls all seem to have sent one last picture on their mobile phones before they disappeared. While it is kind of the fictional serial killer to provide such a calling card – real-life ones tend not to bother – it does at least mean that suddenly, the game’s afoot. When it is, we see a different Rebus: as ever, he is driven, obsessed, but this time with the extra edge that at any day he could be taken off the murder case and sent back to his boring job in Edinburgh.
So when he drives through the night across Scotland to question a suspect or open up a new angle on the case, when he goes back to his old ways of behaving like a private eye who just happens to be in uniform, it is a race against time not just to catch the killer but to be “allowed” to catch the killer. We don’t need to be told this – indeed we never are – but thanks to Rankin’s genius as a crime writer, we understand it all the same. His actual writing style is seldom more than bluntly efficient, but in allowing his readers the space to find their own emotional clues about his characters’ motivation, Rankin once again reveals himself to be a consummate craftsman of crime. «