The Naming of the Dead

Share this article

BY Ian Rankin

Orion, 420pp, 17.99

EDINBURGH AND CENTRAL Scotand, the week of the G8 summit, July 2005, when the eyes of the world are on Scotland. Almost every available policeman has been called upon, to protect the dignitaries, fend off the demonstrators and those who have come prepared for a riot. One exception: DI John Rebus, deemed "surplus to requirements", told to mind the shop at Gayfield Square police station.

However, with retirement in sight - "nobody would blame you for coasting" - Rebus is to be found at his brother's funeral service in a crematorium in Kirkcaldy, in the first pages of this, the 17th Rebus novel. A text from DS Siobhan Clarke gives him an excuse to leave the wake. In a wood near Auchterarder, at a place called the Clootie Well, she has come upon what looks like a shrine, pieces of clothing hung on trees, and among them a jacket belonging to a recent murder victim. " 'Deceased' was the word most of the cops on the case had used - and grudgingly at that. Nobody bothered with the term 'victim'. Nobody could say the words out loud - bastard got what he deserved ..."

But that's what they thought. For the dead man, Colliar, was a rapist, an unrepentant one, recently released from prison. He was working as "a night-time bouncer and daytime muscle", and his employer was Big Ger Cafferty, once Edinburgh's foremost mobster - and that gives John Rebus an interest. Cafferty himself is ostensibly a reformed character, also a celebrity following the publication of his "autobiography" ghosted by journalist Mairie Henderson, an old friend of Rebus. In the past I have criticised Ian Rankin's use of Cafferty as one of the few weaknesses in the novels, even urged him to get rid of him, but I should say that in this book Cafferty is more convincing than previously, indeed, very effective. Colliar is, it seems, not alone; there are two other 'deceased', one a rapist, the other guilty of "sexual assault". Is there a serial killer on the loose?

Pursuing an investigation in the week of the G8 summit is not easy - though it does mean that the spotlight is not on Rebus and Siobhan. But there are distractions: a junior Government minister, Labour MP for Dundee North, had fallen to his death from Edinburgh Castle; suicide, murder, accident? Special Branch seem to be engaged in obstruction and perhaps a cover-up. What was his association with Richard Pennen of Pennen Industries, dealer in weapons technology? Siobhan's parents have come north to join the Peace March, but who is the young woman, calling herself Santal, who has befriended them? And what is Councillor Tench, a former preacher at the foot of the Mound, now a promoter of urban regeneration, up to? What is his relationship with Cafferty, and with the delinquents on the Niddrie estate, especially a young thug called Keith?

It is a rich broth, or to change metaphors, a baffling maze that Rankin has constructed, and the manner in which he leads us through the twists and turns before disentangling them is masterly. One has come to take his extraordinary ability to construct a compelling plot, and pace his narrative, almost for granted, and that itself is a high compliment. He is a story-teller of genius.

But, of course, there is more to the books than that, and more too than his evocation of Edinburgh - one might rather say, his creation of Edinburgh as a fictional character. The books fascinate partly because of Rankin's ambivalence towards power and towards social order. All crime novels are ultimately about the breach of that order, and about the duty of the policeman or the detective to restore it. But Rankin has a subversive streak. The power that commands order is not always admirable; it may even be criminal itself. Rebus is deeply suspicious of all legally constituted authority; he acts according to his own moral code. He is a policeman ready to take the law into his own hands, which means he is prepared to break it. For him, the end justifies the means, which is an uncomfortable moral position to be in. He rates high on insubordination, because he distrusts the motives - as well as the intelligence - of those set over him. He is an anti-Establishment figure, a rebel with a cause, who nevertheless ultimately belongs, by reason of his job, to the Establishment he so resents.

Unlike many fictional detectives, Rebus has changed over the years. His character has deepened, his disillusionment become more disturbing. He hates and fears Cafferty, because Cafferty is his mirror image. He is closer to him than to his superiors, to the chief constable, for instance. This is one of the "demons" he must "quell".

Chandler called his Marlowe "a shopsoiled Galahad". Rebus is that too. Siobhan is afraid that she may become like him - "obsessed and sidelined, thrawn and distrusted. Rebus had lost family and friends. When he went out drinking, he did so on his own, standing quietly at the bar, facing the row of optics." This book is suffused with a profound melancholy, which emanates from Rebus, near the end of his tether. In a year he will be forced into retirement, and it is impossible to imagine his life then as other than a desert. Certainly, he can't imagine it himself in any other way. He must retire, but can Rankin let him go? Surely there will be one more case with him in harness, and after that? Surely Siobhan will have to turn to him for help? Surely there will be an old case, or several, long thought dead and buried, which will rise up again, requiring him?

Meanwhile here he is at his best. Indeed, I will go further. The Naming of the Dead is Ian Rankin's finest novel. It is more than a crime novel, or rather, Rankin's achievement is to show, convincingly, how crime permeates society.

And at its heart is Rebus, clinging despite everything to his sense of himself, to his sense of his battered integrity.