Very early on Ian Rankin made the wise decision to have his character Detective Inspector John Rebus age with the series, fictional time and real-life time marching in step.
This has contributed to making him the credible figure he has become. It has also helped to make the series social novels as well as crime novels. The Scotland of 2018 is different in many ways from the Scotland of the 1980s, when Rebus made his debut, and a reading of the 23 Rebus novels before this one offers one perspective on the social history of Scotland. Moreover, if he hadn’t allowed Rebus to age, it would have been difficult to trace the changing pattern of policing, here revealed in this new novel as nervously aware of the power of social media, defensive even to near the point of paranoia. The sort of police contacts which used to be normal – the use of informers (snouts), relations with the press, even trading information with officers on other forces – are now regarded as suspicious, possibly evidence of corruption. You have the feeling that the police themselves are, in their superiors’ eyes, almost as much objects of suspicion as those they are investigating. Rankin presents us with a disturbing picture of the modern world in which what used to be recognised as facts are merely one version of alternative realities.
Of course there’s a difficulty. Rebus is now on the shelf, some years into his reluctant retirement. It requires some ingenuity to get him back into action and even, one might say, effrontery to give him a significant, even decisive, role in an investigation. Moreover, though he may, as a senior officer says on meeting him here, be “a legend”, he is one with a chequered past and a dubious reputation, not least on account of his long relationship with Edinburgh’s Godfather of Crime, Big Ger Cafferty. Early in the series, I found Cafferty unconvincing, and even suggested that he should be disposed of. He was indeed absent from at least one novel, but, really, neither Rankin nor Rebus could do without him, and I confess I would now be disappointed if the old brute was posted missing.
Here three boys discover a car deep in a gully in thick woodland. It’s been there for a long time, and there’s a body, or what’s left of a body, in the boot, the legs handcuffed. (Are they perhaps police-issue cuffs?). DI Siobhan Clarke, Rebus’s old protégé, is early on the scene, and it’s not long before she gets a text from Rebus (alerted by news reports on social media), asking if it’s a red Volkswagen Polo. Of course it is. The murdered man was a missing person in a case back in 2006, one that went very wrong and one that was incompetently investigated, giving rise to suspicion of corruption, directed at Rebus among others.
Rebus may now be suffering from emphysema and find himself out of breath as he climbs the two flights of stairs to his Arden Street flat. He may have stopped smoking, and almost given up alcohol. He may seem a typical pensioner as he walks his wee dog in the Meadows. Happily however, his memory is good, his mind still razor-sharp and his self-confidence undiminished. Despite the distrust he invites, you expect him to prove invaluable, and he even has the energy to carry on a private parallel investigation into the case of a young man who had confessed to the murder of his girlfriend. And of course, he keeps his eye on Cafferty.
As ever, Rankin contrives to marry intricate plotting to a narrative that never slackens its pace. He has become a consummate craftsman, his novels put together like pieces of fine furniture. They make for easy reading, but easy reading in this kind of novel is almost always made possible by hard writing. All fiction demands a willingness on the part of the reader to accept conventions and suspend disbelief. Reading a Rankin novel makes this surrender easy. Happily, there is life still in Rebus. The day may come when he works from a wheelchair in an old folks home; there are after all many dark corners of the past to be exposed to the light. n