Book review: The Beat Goes On by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin’s collected Rebus short stories are enjoyable enough, but lack the dark depths of the novels, says Allan Massie
Ian Rankin on Rebus: 'Sometimes I feel as thought I'm the one living in HIS head.' Picture: Lisa FergusonIan Rankin on Rebus: 'Sometimes I feel as thought I'm the one living in HIS head.' Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Ian Rankin on Rebus: 'Sometimes I feel as thought I'm the one living in HIS head.' Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Sherlock Holmes appears in 56 stories and only four novels. G K Chesterton never wrote a novel featuring his priest-detective, Father Brown, but he appears in several volumes of short stories. Over almost 30 years Ian Rankin has published 20 Rebus novels and one novella; there are 29 short stories in this collection which is, I think, the complete Rebus short fiction. The contrast with Conan Doyle and Chesterton tells us something about the market, something also about the nature of crime fiction.

There was a time when there were lots of magazines publishing short stories and paying well for them; this is no longer the case.

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Monthly magazines like the Strand in which the Sherlock Holmes stories appeared would have several stories in each issue, and enjoyed a wide circulation. They have disappeared, and authors therefore no longer write for a market that no longer exists.

The crime novel, in contrast, flourishes, and, once again in accordance with the demands of the market, the crime novel has become bigger, longer, fuller, fatter, more complicated.

You can – very obviously – do things in a novel that you can’t in a short story. The plot can be much more complicated, characters more fully developed. In what is often described as the Golden Age of detective – as distinct from crime – fiction successful authors such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers wrote short stories as well as novels, but their stories were almost always skimpier things. They might be readable and offer neat puzzles, but they were puzzles that were quickly solved, often by what one might call a flight of intuition.

In his Rebus novels, Ian Rankin has created a whole and convincing world, in which the two main characters, playing off each other, are Rebus himself, the shop-soiled seeker of truth, and Edinburgh itself, in all its variety and complexity, its grime and glitter. In each novel Rebus painfully and painstakingly descends into the lower depths of the city and his own being. The journey towards a solution of the mystery is arduous. There are detours. False tracks are followed. Morality is often compromised. Rebus himself is damaged. In the most recent novels, he is even diminished. You feel he is clinging on by his fingertips to a sense of who he is and what he should be.

None of this is the case with these short stories. They are neat, pleasing, inventive, but they are also less. They are well made, a pleasure to read, one after the other, the work of a practised and professional craftsman.

One or two turn on the sort of trick that Christie or Sayers might have devised. There is one in which it looks as if a young hoodlum of whose guilt Rebus is certain will be found not guilty. He seems to have an alibi.

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He couldn’t have committed the crime and been in a certain bar at a certain time. But just as a Golden Age short story may turn on a stopped clock, this one turns on when a football match actually kicked off. This is nice, but by Rebus’s standards too easy.

One of the most recently written is about a businessman who has disappeared, his Bentley found abandoned in a multi-storey car park at the airport. In a Rebus novel this would surely lead us into the criminal underworld. Here it is a simple domestic murder, quickly and easily solved.

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The solution to one of the most pleasing stories, set in the Caledonian Hotel, is obvious to anyone who has read the Muriel Spark novel found on the murdered woman’s bedside table.

The story may be read as homage to Spark on whose work the young Rankin studied for a PhD.

In another the case of an apparently macabre hanging of a young actor in a Fringe show is solved partly by medical evidence, partly by Rebus’s somewhat surprising knowledge of a Shakespeare play.

Another, featuring anonymous letters and blackmail turns on a name spelled wrongly; a nice case but one feels it didn’t take Rebus to solve it.

All these stories are enjoyable. You are quite likely to start at the beginning and read them straight through, which is unusual for a book of short stories.

If you are a fan of the novels, you won’t be disappointed, but you will miss the deeper satisfactions the novels offer.

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Rebus is, inevitably perhaps, less than the Rebus you know. He is not being put through the mill.

Even in one story about his Sunday after he has in self-defence killed a criminal who had attacked him with a knife, the resolution is too easy. In a novel, he would have been in deep trouble and probably suspended.

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Pleasing at the stories are, it’s quite possible that enthusiasts will find more of interest in the little essay appended to the collection. It’s a fragment of autobiography in which Rankin gives us the history of how he happened on Rebus and of what Rebus has meant to him. “For twenty years now he’s been living in my head, but sometimes it feels as though I’m the one living in his.”

A psychoanalyst who interviewed him at a book festival wondered if Rebus was the brother he had never had.

Perhaps he is, or perhaps he’s his alter ego, the dark side of his personality.