Book review: The Impossible Dead

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IT IS now more than four years since the retirement of DCI John Rebus. The Scottish detective was that rare thing, a fictional creation who bursts from the pages of his books to achieve name recognition in the real world.

Partly driven by his creator’s keen eye for publicity, Rebus became an Edinburgh landmark, inspired tours around his native city and gave his name to a particular pint of beer.

Malcolm Fox, Rankin’s newest detective, enjoying his second fictional outing in The Impossible Dead, is unlikely to inspire a pint. His tipple is Appletiser, his idea of a good night is an evening alone in his Oxgangs home with a supermarket curry. Rebus broke the rules, Fox enforces them as an Inspector in Professional Standards, investigating bad cops and cover-ups.

But Fox is shaping up to be a formidable creation in his own right. The first few chapters of this novel are models of terse, compelling storybuilding. Called to Kirkcaldy to investigate the way the Fife police handled the case of an officer jailed for exacting sexual favours from women, Fox and his team are, almost by accident, drawn into a the murky forgotten world of fringe Scottish Nationalist groups in the 1980s.

In 1985, nationalist firebrand Francis Vernal was discovered dead in his car in a Fife wood, a gunshot wound to his head. Like the real-life case of nationalist Willie MacRae, whose death on a Highland road in 1985 is still believed by some to be the work of MI5, Vernal’s death has left a string of unanswered questions.

But it is 2011, the government in Edinburgh is Nationalist, and the Nationalist government wants no truck with the wild and woolly antics of the past. Fox’s journey takes him from the Edinburgh New Club, to the State Mental Hospital at Carstairs, from the East Neuk of Fife to the Wallace Monument. His cast takes in sly lawyers, vain TV presenters, tipsy academics, ambitious nationalist politicians and desiccated Edinburgh society ladies.

Rankin has fun with the feverish political convictions of the Manichean 1980s, when a flat in Viewforth could be bought for £35,000 and a personal computer cost more than a family car. His portrait of the varied future careers of those who once dreamed of bombing their way out of the British State is witty but underscored by a moral seriousness.

Intricately and ingeniously plotted, this novel builds to a compelling climax in a the Fife wood where Vernal’s body was discovered. A purist might complain that a few of the revelations strain credulity, but Rankin’s world is so meticulously created that this barely seems to matter.

Rankin shows again his unsparing eye for the contours and ironies of modern Scotland. The scope and political force of this novel recalls James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still.

Reviews for the first Fox novel, The Complaints, were overshadowed by the absence of Rebus. The Impossible Dead should put to bed any doubts about Rankin’s new series. Unlike Conan Doyle, Rebus’s creator has shown that he can step out of the shadow of his most famous creation. This is the finest Ian Rankin novel for many years. You won’t miss Rebus once.


Ian Rankin

Orion Books, £18.99