Tiffany Jenkins: The case of the comeback

REBUS is returning – and he’s in good company. He joins ageing rock stars and TV and literary greats in an era of constant reinvention in which nothing new is ever created, writes Tiffany Jenkins

There is a bleak moment in the last Rebus novel Exit Music when the Detective Inspector queries the interest of certain senior colleagues – who dislike him – in his leaving party. “How come you’re all so keen to witness my demise?” He asks. The DI was on the verge of retirement and resisting the presentation of the gold watch. But he was sixty, which – at the time – was the age police officers had to stop working, and couldn’t avoid being put out to pasture.

It is twenty-five years since the dour character first appeared in Knots and Crosses, and five years since he left the scene. Many miss his drinking, smoking and unorthodox approach to solving crime. Well, now they can stop longing for his return. Speaking this week at the Hay Festival, the author of the series, Ian Rankin, broke the news to mass applause. Rebus is back.

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Rankin explained that the change in retirement age in real-life had allowed him to revive the detective, in a new book – Standing in Another Man’s Grave, due out later this year. “I felt there was unfinished business between the two of us,” the author said. “He had never really gone away but was working for Edinburgh’s cold case unit. And I knew I had a story that was a perfect fit for him.” Rebus will be “as stubborn and anarchic as ever”, in trouble with the new guy – Malcolm Fox, of the Edinburgh internal affairs unit.

OK, so it’s not as far-fetched as when, in the soap opera Dallas, Bobby Ewing came back from the dead, standing in the shower as if nothing had happened. And it’s not quite as improbable as when Arthur Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Homes back from the other side, after killing him off with Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. Readers wouldn’t accept that fate. The Strand Magazine, in which Dolye published, lost 20,000 subscribers and fans of Holmes took to wearing black armbands. Doyle gave in and resurrected the sleuth with elaborate explanations for how he dodged death.

But, the comeback isn’t the most original or convincing plot device. It’s so common there is practically a TV character based on it. In the cartoon South Park a central character dies in every episode to cries of: “Oh my god! They killed Kenny”. It’s just a little too convenient. Even dedicated readers will have to suspend a great deal of disbelief. Good drama, like the deservedly praised The Wire, allows central protagonists to die – RIP Stringer Bell, RIP Frank Sobotka, RIP D’Angelo.

Rebus fans may not have worn armbands but they did complain. And there are a lot of them. Since the DI’s first appearance in 1987, the novels have been translated into twenty-two languages, becoming international best-sellers, so it’s no surprise that he’s taking a longer time to retire than most coppers. And who can blame Ian Rankin for milking it? But is the return of the DI a good thing? Maybe it’s time someone had a word: “Rebus, mate – you’re past it. Stop embarrassing yourself.”

It seems that the old-timer has caught the disease of our age, from a certain generation who just won’t go – like the ageing musicians who won’t grow old gracefully, but chose to stay on, reuniting and repeating their playlists. As Simon Reynolds aptly puts it, in his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, we are living in the ‘Re’ era, a time of revivals, reissues, reunions and rereleases. Instead of resting up, the old rockers, mods and soul singers get back together, go on reunion tours and replay their earlier days to an ageing audience. The DI joins a veritable parade of pensioners on stage who should know better.

Mick Jagger will be 70 next year, yet he is still performing and is far from the only OAP on show. In 1975, David Bowie announced he had given up on rock. “I’ve rocked my roll,” he announced. “There will be no more rock and roll records or tours from me. The last thing I want to be is some useless f****** rock singer,” he said when he was 28. Bowie turned 65 in January and shows little sign of stopping. Elton John; Iggy Pop; Patti Smith – all are still performing. It’s a far cry from live fast, die young. And whilst they may have made the best pop ever, it was created for my parent’s generation. It’s just wrong that they are still going strong. When I am 65, I do not want to be acting 25. Besides, aren’t they knackered?

I appreciate that there is no law to say that those with grey hair and wrinkles must stay out of sight, and rightly so. I am pleased that those who are getting on are healthier than ever before. Figures show that this is the best time to be old, with rising longevity, and although improvements are less rapid in Scotland than elsewhere, it’s still an improving situation. Before you accuse me of ageism, let me point out that the inability to get off the stage and close the curtain applies not just to the old rocking dinosaurs. Ravers, it seems, are also stuck in a groove.

It became clear that something was wrong when I heard that the original Stone Roses are to tour this year. The singer Ian Brown and guitarist John Squire used to scorn the idea of a reunion and used to sing, and will now continue to sing for what will seem like forever: “The past was yours. But the future’s mine. You’re all out of time.”

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No matter how lucrative it is, there is no excuse for this pastiche of previous selves. Someone needs to stop the record. The whole point of much of this culture is that was by the young for the young. Now, it seems as if no-one knows how to grow up, or where to go next.

The problem is less with the aged, and more with the endless, nostalgic, recycling of popular culture and everyday fictional characters, who were all fine at the time, but don’t really warrant quite so much replay. The repetitive tropes and familiar refrains suggest that there are no new tunes or characters around. It is better to move on than try and relive something that is gone.

In another sombre scene in Exit Music, Rebus reveals that he knows that it is time to go, when he picks up on his colleague Siobhan Clarke’s feelings. “Part of her, maybe the best part of her, wanted Rebus gone. It was the only way she could start to prove herself.” He should listen to his intuition more often.

It is time to make way for new melodies, new morose detectives who don’t look back, who still have time on their side to be the next big thing, and who will rip it up and start again. This is an open and shut case. It is time to stop standing in another man’s shoes.