Book review: Doors Open, by Ian Rankin

Orion, £18.99

Review: Stuart Kelly

FOR all those eager fans wondering what Rebus did next, after his retirement in Exit Music, a word of warning: Doors Open, Ian Rankin's new novel, won't tell you. There is a sly little wink when DI Ransome asks DI Hendricks how things are at Gayfield Square and gets the gruff reply, "A damn sight quieter since you-know-who retired." But even without his most famous creation Rankin delivers a rattling, smart yarn. In a way, I'm disappointed I didn't read this with a stinking cold, as Rankin is the bookish equivalent of a strong hot toddy; undemanding, invigorating and with a hefty, acid kick.

Doors Open was substantially written before Exit Music, and appeared as the Sunday Serial in the New York Times in 2007 – indeed, Rankin was the first British writer to be awarded the accolade, which he shares with such luminaries as Patricia Cornwell, Elmore Leonard and Michael Chabon. Revised and expanded for UK publication, it is equally familiar and unexpected.

Instead of the protagonist being a policeman, in Doors Open the central characters are wannabe criminals. Mike Mackenzie, a bored and wealthy software mogul, Allan Cruikshank, a financial adviser tired of being a grey man, and an irascible art professor, Robert Gissing, on the eve of his retirement from Edinburgh College of Art, cook up a scheme to "liberate" various paintings from the National Collection's "overspill" warehouse in Granton.

They are all art-lovers, and are all suffering from anomie. Gissing resents the fact that great works are kept hidden away, Cruikshank wants a masterpiece of his own to give him emotional purchase over his philistine clients, and Mackenzie hankers after a portrait that reminds him of an attractive auctioneer, and some excitement. But pulling off the robbery slowly embroils them in a far seedier world. Their idea is to replace the paintings with fakes, so they recruit a chip-on-the-shoulder art student called Westie, who specialises in reproductions with hidden anachronisms (a plastic bag in the corner of a Constable, a black eye on the Skating Minister). They also need muscle, replica guns, a getaway van – and fortuitously, Mackenzie has run into an old school acquaintance, Edinburgh gangster Chib Calloway.

Rankin opens the whole novel with a flash-forward – seven people, tied up or prone in an abandoned snooker hall, with a psychopath called "Hate" about to kill them all. ( This prologue was not in the serial version). Everything, the reader knows from the outset, is going to go pear-shaped. The fun is in finding out how. As the scheme expands, the number of possible disasters increases exponentially, and a backstory of blackmail, failed drug deals and ulterior motives means every character might be the weak link in the chain.

Doors Open has more in common with Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr novels or Donald Westlake's John Dortmunder series, and Rankin name-drops both Ocean's Eleven and The Lavender Hill Mob. The balance between comedy and "real" crime is held fairly well, and the ending satisfies well enough – although I had just an inkling that Rankin was holding back, and striving to unite the Rebus-style "justice" ending with his more radically amoral cast. Rankin has some fun with Chib Calloway's love of Vettriano, which horrifies the art-lovers, and might even reflect a certain prominent crime novelist's frustration at the "snooty" critics.

Perhaps it's a fossil remnant of the serial form, but some of the cadenzas on Edinburgh – the differences between the Old Town and the New, a mention of Jekyll and Hyde, the Trainspotting Tour in gentrified Leith – would probably appeal more to a first-time Rankin reader. Edinburgh, in a way, is the real villain of the piece – a city so small that no one can play six degrees of separation. In how quickly a network of coincidences, meetings and acquaintances can be uncovered, it's closer to the St Mary Mead of Miss Marple than the sprawling metropolises of Ellroy, Lee Burke or McBain.

But none of that detracts from the pleasure of the novel. Rankin's virtues of pace, cynicism, detail and neat plotting get the added benefit of some sharp humour and sardonic social observation. It can only whet the appetite for what Rankin really does next.

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