Book review: Rather Be The Devil by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin PIC: Ian Georgeson
Ian Rankin PIC: Ian Georgeson
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To whom does the title of the 21st Rebus novel refer? There are plenty of candidates with a more than slightly sulphurous air about them in this typically gripping book. As much as it delivers satisfying solutions to its central mysteries, it rearranges the pieces on the board, perhaps in anticipation of the next book, and does so with looming foreboding.

Rebus, now retired, is also ill. Rather than thinking about the results of a forthcoming test for “Hank Marvin” – his typically mordant name for what might be causing the shadow on his lung – and struggling with giving up the coffin nails, he is chewing over a cold case he could never solve. Forty years beforehand, Maria Turquand, the promiscuous wife of a banker, was strangled in a room in the Caledonian Hotel, on the same night that a local rock star was staying there with his entourage. His erstwhile colleagues, Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox, have their own ongoing investigations, both converging on Big Ger Cafferty’s treacherous protégé, Darryl Christie. Fox, now promoted to the Scottish Crime Campus at Gartcosh, is asked by the Revenue’s Criminal Investigations to look into Christie’s gambling outlets as potential money-laundering operations. Clarke, still in Edinburgh CID and still resentful of Fox’s elevation, is more concerned that someone gave Christie a serious beating in his own front drive. Linking the cases – whether coincidentally or not – is the scion of a Scottish banking dynasty, who has unaccountably disappeared. Lurking in the background, as always, is Cafferty, offering tantalising hints about “a Russian” and putting on as good an impersonation as Rebus of being retired.

So who has the Satanic tang about them? Everyone, more or less. Of course, the villains exude a mephitic nastiness, from the burnt out case who enjoys confessing to crimes he didn’t commit, to the banker whose own sister thinks him fiendish, to the aspirant Christie and the resurgent Cafferty. In one of the book’s best speeches, Cafferty compares himself to a bridge player – despite not playing bridge – in that there comes a point in the game where you have won whatever: “All those cards are landing just the way they should, and I’m so far ahead on points it’s almost embarrassing.” But the same applies to the police. Rebus, not now actually a policeman, is unleashed from certain proprieties, and as he says to Clarke, “with me, it’s always been about the outcome rather than the process”. The poker-faced Fox, introduced as the anti-Rebus in his self-willed blandness, is increasingly compromised, and Clarke is beginning to see cases as routes to power rather than injustices to be righted. The rivalries in the structure of the new Police Scotland are exploited to the full; and the reader can feel that what is at present merely frayed will unravel soon.

Rankin is expert at what theorists of realism call the authenticating detail. From the perpetual roadworks on Lothian Road to the incline of the ascent from the city mortuary to Blackwell’s bookshop and the café therein, he places very precise nods at specific local knowledge. This applies to the dialogue, from Rebus texting “both hunky and dory” to the parachuted-in DS James raging that they have “the square root of hee-haw”. You can’t fake idiosyncrasy.

In this, as in most of his more recent novels, one of the distinguishing features of Rankin’s crime novels is that the antagonists are engaged in as much detection as the officials, though with considerably fewer constraints. Val McDermid is probably stronger on the procedural side of things, and Denise Mina stronger on the deep politics of crime, but Rankin is paramount in dualistic characterisation, where the Jekyll and Hyde of Rebus and Cafferty seek the same thing for different ends. The characters are almost superimposed on each other. Although the novel is divided into days, it is striking how much of those days take place at twilight. A crepuscular air pervades the recent novels, a pathetic fallacy of Rebus’s own gloaming. It is a far more violent novel than Even Dogs In The Wild or Saints Of The Shadow Bible, let alone the “last” Rebus novel Exit Music: readers should be prepared for claw hammers, swords, six-inch nails and antiquated guns. But the violence does not seem sensational. Indeed, it is usually frighteningly banal.

Previous Rebus novels have used contemporary events as verifying points – the Referendum, the G8 summit and suchlike. But this is a far more political novel in the profound sense. To paraphrase LP Hartley’s famous opening to The Go-Between, it isn’t that the past is a different country, they do things differently there; here it is that wealth is a different country, you can do anything there. The quiet observation – almost an aside – that a sum of money that is life-or-death to a senior police officer is peanuts to a gangster encapsulates the gnarly sadness of the novel.

The title refers to a John Martyn song, and readers keen to avoid spoilers ought not to look up the full lyrics. It is no surprise that a Rankin novel is clever and compelling. What will be a surprise is where things go from here.

*Rather Be The Devil by Ian Rankin, Orion Books, £19.99