A question of blood and belonging

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IT BEGINS WITH A BODY. NOTHING unusual there, but the body Detective Inspector Rebus finds behind the crime-scene tape closing off the underpass on Edinburgh’s notorious Knoxland estate is of an Asian man who has been stabbed to death.

Fleshmarket Close, Ian Rankin’s latest novel, does a lot more than tackle that particular race crime. His most complex and political novel yet, it broadens out to look at racism in Scotland and how asylum-seekers might experience it, whether in the heartless regime of detention centres, where bewildered families are torn apart by officialdom, or in the wider world of work.

"In many ways it’s about the many and various people we think shouldn’t be here," says Rankin. "The people who don’t fit in, the people who are forced to play the role of outsiders. One character is a Glasgow-based activist lawyer named Dirwan who says: ‘I think Scotland was complacent for many years: we don’t have room for racism, we’re too busy with bigotry.’ But this is just not the case."

Instead racism is alive and kicking, despite its absurdity. "The First Minister says that the country, which stares at a bleak future of depopulation, needs skilled immigrants. Yet asylum-seekers are locked up in detention centres, their children kept with them; or, for the lucky ones, there may be a damp high-rise flat in the roughest city areas. Officially, they are not allowed to work, so they exist in poverty and isolation, surrounded by reticent locals. One such immigrant was stabbed to death last year in Glasgow. It could happen again, any time, on any street.

"I’ve always been fascinated by people on the margins. Rebus is one such, with a Polish grandfather who arrived in Fife before the Second World War, and he shares my fascination."

In the novel, Rebus reflects that there is "a brave world awaiting the new parliament. An ageing country dispatching its talents to the four corners of the globe but unwelcoming to visitor and migrant alike."

On the surface - but only on the surface - the plot is fairly standard. Skeletons are found in the High Street close that lends its name to the book’s title, a girl goes missing, and the story swings round the seedier side of the capital’s life, taking in the world of Lothian Road lap-dancing clubs, drugs and prostitution en route. But this time round something different is going on in Rebus’s dysfunctional world.

Fleshmarket Close is about displacement from familiar surroundings. It will jolt many readers with its graphic descriptions of how we receive (and perceive) the current wave of immigrants to our country and will certainly cause ripples amongst those who work for the Immigration Service within the Home Office.

At the start of the novel both Rebus and sidekick Siobhan Clarke have been moved from St Leonard’s police station to Gayfield Square station as part of an organisational change. They have also been marginalised by their superiors. Rebus does not even have a desk but sits brooding beside the coffee machine table. Both the cases they work on during the book take place away from central Edinburgh; Rebus dealing with the murder of the immigrant at Knoxland and Siobhan (coming increasingly to the forefront) running her own case in a hardbitten small West Lothian town near Livingston. By the end of the book both cases intertwine.

Knoxland is a grim housing estate not unadjacent, perhaps, to Silverknowes, where the four gloomy tower blocks are named after Scottish writers: Stevenson, Barrie, Scott and Burns. Inevitably (for Ian Rankin devotees) it will be the Stevenson block that has the major role to play in the crime. We are exposed to the violence, extortion rackets and sheer desperation of those who live on such sink estates. It is this strand that leads Rebus to the Whitemire detention centre and beyond, into the murky lap-dancing bar scene of Lothian Road. Here he discovers that the Immigration Service are already on the case, led by a black officer whose presence reveals the in-built racial prejudice among some of Rebus’s own colleagues.

Meanwhile, Siobhan Clarke is conducting an investigation into the case of a missing girl, the sister of a rape victim who has later killed herself. She finds herself working with the West Lothian branch of the Lothian and Borders police force in a depressed community to which the rapist has just returned, having done time. "I wanted Rebus and Siobhan to be at Gayfield Square but also working away from it," says Rankin. "I wanted them to feel like fish out of water, to make them feel that they too had been put into a strange new environment, a bit like an asylum-seeker; not confident about their role in this place, trying to make new friends. It’s similar to a situation where you’ve left your own country and you’re displaced."

The obvious model for the fictitious Whitemire detention centre is Dungavel but Rankin stresses that he has not been near the place. However, the foreword to the book credits the Glasgow Positive Action in Housing group as well as the Scottish Refugee Council and the Close Dungavel Now campaign, as well as Amnesty. Rankin admits that the book has political overtones but that he wants to express them through fiction "rather than standing with a placard in public".

Rebus, as we know from the series, is in any case a displaced character. He’s still on the booze and fags, with the Oxford Bar his second home, but the dynamics between him and Siobhan have shifted. He links up with a bohemian artist and protester named Caro Quinn (with more than a hint of love interest) and introduces her to Siobhan at The Ox, where the two women have a stand-up row. Rebus intervenes and remarks afterwards that the relationship between himself and Siobhan is itself tribal, making it difficult for outsiders to enter the fold. He muses that "his job was his whole life; over the years he’d let it push aside everything else: family, friends, pastimes."

What is striking about Fleshmarket Close is how Rankin has matured as a writer. It reveals a more considered writing style and use of characterisation than some of the more recent works such as Resurrection Men or A Question of Blood. The descriptions of the locales are evocative, the dialogues are crisp and tight and there are piercing observations of life both in contemporary Edinburgh and Central Scotland, with Rankin’s usual acute eye for buildings and those who live (or lurk) within them.

So how long until Rebus either succumbs to liver failure or collects his pension? Rankin says he is contracted for two further Rebus books but will take four years to produce these instead of the previous annual outing.

"There are still things about Rebus I don’t know. I’ve still got things I want to say about him and there are still things to be said about Scotland through his eyes. He will be around for a little bit longer yet. So I’ve got four years to work out whether that’s going to be the end or not. But I think with the new Parliament now in working order there is room for another political book picking up on where Set in Darkness set the scene."

The next project is a book of photographs, provisionally titled Rebus’s Scotland. Several hundred pictures have been taken by the partnership of Ross Gillespie and Tricia Malley who produce the cover shots for the Rebus books. For this Rankin will be writing some 100 pages of text after touring around the country, seeing Scotland "partly as a form of my autobiography and partly through Rebus’ eyes." The book is scheduled to be launched next summer.

Meanwhile, his fans have the 400 pages of Fleshmarket Close to occupy themselves with. In it, they will notice, instead of being content to stay within predictable confines of crime fiction, Rankin seems to be pushing into more contentious territory, in which he is prepared to take on serious public issues and to raise awareness of them within and beyond his readership.

As Rebus says at one stage: "We spend most of our time chasing something called ‘the underworld’ but it’s the ‘overworld’ we should really be keeping an eye on." Fortunately, his creator does this brilliantly - one of the many reasons that makes this the best book Ian Rankin has written to date.

• Fleshmarket Close by Ian Rankin is published by Orion Books on 27 September, price 17.99.