John Rebus, the Scottish detective made popular in Ian Rankin's mystery novels, is back after a long absence, writes Malcolm Forbes, and he continues to lead an unhealthy lifestyle, and yes, he still drives that old Saab .
Veteran Edinburgh police officer Rebus returns in new Ian Rankin novel
Standing in Another Man’s Grave
Reagan Arthur Books Hamilton
Fans of crime fiction have good reason to rejoice: after a five-year absence, John Rebus is back. Ian Rankin's inveterate Edinburgh police officer first appeared on the scene 25 years ago and was the driving force of 18 fiendishly puzzling, not to mention consistently thrilling, whodunits, before he bowed out in 2007's Exit Music. His creator, however, never made any secret of the fact that Rebus might return - Exit Music being more a farewell to Rebus's police career than to Rebus himself. Since then Rankin has enjoyed success with a new character, Malcolm Fox of "the Complaints", or Edinburgh's internal affairs unit. Now, in Standing in Another Man's Grave, Rankin hauls Rebus out of retirement - no dramatic Reichenbach Falls resurrection necessary - and, in a masterstroke, also brings in Fox to investigate his apparent wrongdoing. The result is one of Rankin's most satisfying novels to date.
At the beginning we find Rebus working in a civilian capacity in the cold case unit, trying to crack unsolved crimes - "the long dead, murder victims forgotten by the world at large". But this department's days are numbered and a restless Rebus considers reapplying for his old job. "Man's got to have something to fill his retirement," is one of many sardonic rejoinders, proving that Rebus, though pensioned off, is still as sharp as before. He loses himself in a series of seemingly connected cases concerning disappeared, perhaps abducted women, dating back to the millennium.
Enter Siobhan Clarke, Rebus's former sidekick and now a rising star in CID, with a current case about a missing woman. A pattern emerges, a link made between disappearances past and present, an identical modus operandi on the part of the perpetrator. Rebus and Clarke join forces and their sleuthing has them flitting between Edinburgh and the Highlands. But when Rebus's old Moriarty-esque nemesis, Ger Cafferty, shows an interest in the case, and after Rebus is spotted out and about with another hoodlum and later suspect, Frank Hammell, Malcolm Fox launches his own enquiry to ascertain whether retired cop Rebus is now a stooge in the pocket of the capital's most notorious mobsters.
At first glance, Standing in Another Man's Grave reads as if Rebus has never been away. Familiar friends and enemies crop up and stick around, including Rebus's now-adult daughter, Samantha. Rankin peppers his novel with the usual array of topical references to ensure we are very much in the now, this time touching on the recession, recent British press manipulation and the looming referendum for Scottish independence. As ever, he is keen to showcase not-so-bonny Scotland, focusing on the flip side of genteel Edinburgh and the picture-postcard Highlands and instead taking us deep into the city's grimy underbelly and the region's desolate wastes. More importantly, he knows not to tamper with his winning formula, preferring to keep his surprises for the plot. He is aware that every genre series hero needs his trademark tics and habits, from Holmes with his pipe, violin and dressing gown to Bond with his Walther PPK, vodka martinis and Aston Martin. Thus Rebus still smokes and drinks too much, both at home and in his beloved Oxford Bar, and has not been parted from his hoary rock LPs or beleaguered Saab. Only a couple of pages in and the effect is like slipping into an old pair of comfortable shoes.
That's not to say that Rankin is resting on his laurels, or that each novel is a carbon copy of its predecessor. With every successive book there is a palpable crank-up of tension, renewed bouts of conflict (within criminal and police factions) and an even more ingenious plot replete with fresh swathes of red herrings and devious twists. Standing in Another Man's Grave is no exception. Any initial fears that an ageing Rebus plodding though a file of cold cases might result in a lukewarm thriller featuring a hero a shadow of his former self are quickly dispelled. On closer inspection we find that Rankin has in fact taken risks and tinkered with his formula in order to explore new ground. Now Rebus is working on the margins of his old life, banished from "the body of the kirk", even more of an outsider than he was before. Clarke, the new detective inspector, is no longer his underling but his superior. When Rebus finds the regular avenues of inquiry closed to him he ventures alone into the underworld and calls in favours from past enemies. This is Rebus redux, and the book is all the more exciting for it.
But Rankin's most audacious move is having Rebus and Fox occupy the same novel. Fox, the protagonist of Rankin's last two novels, is Rebus's polar opposite - younger, healthier, teetotal, indifferent to music, and a by-the-book team-playing investigator. When Clarke warns Rebus to make sure there is no ammo that Fox can use against him, Rebus retorts "From the look of him, I'd say he's got a history of firing blanks." However, those who have read The Complaints and The Impossible Dead know Fox is a force to be reckoned with, something Rebus soon discovers after a rare lapse in character assessment. Their face-off takes place in the police station cafeteria, and the entire scene is redolent of the coffee-shop head-to-head with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Michael Mann's Heat (a film which for the first time brought both actors together in the same scene). Rankin's sequence is a short but effective masterclass in tension, with both his seasoned heavyweights brimming with pent-up fury and trading veiled threats.
Fox is a sturdy enough creation to carry a novel, but Rebus is Rankin's real crowd-pleaser, and we are glad he is the star of this show rather than one half of a double-bill. Fox is hunting him because he thinks he is a liability, a superannuated officer who has gone rotten. But Rebus is simply the cop he always was, and who we have always loved - a maverick forever reprimanded for insubordination, who does things on his terms, bending the rules and disregarding protocol. For Fox, "Rebus has spent so many years crossing the line, he's managed to rub it out altogether." In Clarke's eyes, he is "the loosest of cannons, and no constabulary had room for those any more". Much is made of Rebus being a relic of the past, too dyed-in-the-wool to operate today. He doesn't own a laptop and has to be educated on social media. "You're vinyl, we're digital," Clarke says. He is sceptical of modern police methods and prefers to rely on his gut instinct ("Common sense comes cheaper") than reports from criminal profilers and psychologists. "Contacts used to be the way you got things done," he explains. "The only network that mattered was the one out there on the street."
It is refreshing to follow this kind of detective work and these terse and punchy exchanges. There are the usual wry descriptions of danger to Rebus from outside forces (Cafferty's smiles "had more threat to them than most men's scowls") and of the havoc he heaps upon himself ("Rebus had emptied a fair amount of Highland Park into himself, and didn't know if it made him feel better or worse"). Rankin renders his missing persons cases interesting by having Rebus so doggedly tackle them, goaded on by the fact that "somebody thinks they got away with it". As with Rankin's previous books the tandem crime strands eventually twine a little too conveniently, but it seems churlish to pull him up on neat coincidence when there is so much else to admire.
By the end of the novel, Rankin has set up a whole new generation of villains and, should he wish to pursue it, a new direction and lease of life for Rebus. We can only hope he will be brought out of retirement again. This old dog might be averse to learning new tricks, but there is life in him yet.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.