Great Scot! Rebus Returns
Monday, April 23, 2007
THE NAMING OF THE DEAD
By Ian Rankin
Little, Brown. 452 pp. $24.99
Ian Rankin has set his long, ambitious new Inspector Rebus novel during the week of the July 2005 G8 economic summit in his beloved Edinburgh. The week begins with a huge anti-poverty, antiwar demonstration and ends in disarray when terrorists blow up subway cars and a bus in London. In between, Rebus investigates three murders by a serial killer and the possible murder of a liberal member of Parliament who has fallen to his death. As always, Rebus drinks and smokes too much and battles against authority more than against criminals. At the start of the novel, his brother has died unexpectedly, and before it's over we're wondering if the battered, overweight, wheezing Rebus can himself survive. He's somewhere in his late 50s and does not seem long for this world.
There's a great deal going on in this novel -- too much, some readers will think. The massive demonstrations, and police efforts to contain them, are described in detail. More than 200,000 people are marching against poverty and war, including the parents of Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke, Rebus's dear friend and protege. Most are peaceful, but at times black-clad anarchists challenge police, and even the Clown Army turns up. When Rankin has the marchers chanting, "Bush, Blair, CIA, how many kids did you kill today?" it's an echo of another chant 40 years ago ("Hey, hey, LBJ . . .") and a reminder of how little has changed. Rankin leaves no doubt that his sympathies lie with the marchers, not the powers that be. He even contrives to put Rebus at the ultra-secure resort hotel where the heads of state stay, where he sees President Bush fall off his bicycle.
Rebus's superiors want to keep him far away from the VIPs, but once he starts a murder investigation, he rejects any limits on his work. Soon he and Clarke are suspended from duty, but they push on. Still, the murders are not what the book is about. They give it structure and suspense, but all the Rebus books are finally about the author's sheer joy in storytelling. "The Naming of the Dead" overflows with characters, plots, subplots, flashbacks, surprises, digressions and details. Rankin's books are not sleek and streamlined but unruly and inclusive; they are, as the song says, ragged but right.
At various times Rebus battles with a local crime boss, a local political boss, his police bosses, a corrupt arms dealer and an arrogant Special Branch official from London. He's formed alliances with a reporter, a computer whiz and several police colleagues who can gather data that he cannot. Along with his detecting, he misses no opportunity to give us his opinions of rock groups ranging from the celebrated (the Who, Pink Floyd, U2) to the obscure. We learn about a Web site that tracks the whereabouts of sex offenders and meet a female cop whose sister has been abused and another whose mother was killed by such an offender. In one scene Rebus is arrested, painfully handcuffed and jailed overnight by some rogue cops -- and you can be sure he gets his revenge.
Clarke, in addition to trying to protect her parents -- her mother is bashed in the face during a demonstration -- is almost raped by a young hoodlum, reconnects with an ex-boyfriend who's now living with a stripper and attends a rock concert with a nice policeman who bores her. Rebus, of course, is the real man in her life, but she must consider if she should renounce him (her own personal Falstaff) in order to save her career. Rebus has become a poignant figure, one who reflects that "Without the job, he almost ceased to exist." Clarke, meanwhile, grows ever more serious about her work: "She gave a voice to the forgotten and the missing. A world filled with victims, waiting for her and other detectives like her."
The book is punctuated by Rankin's grim humor. Rebus enters a smoky bar whose denizens are oblivious to events outside. " 'Anything happening out there?' one of the regulars asked. Rebus shook his head, knowing that in the drinker's sealed-off world, news of a serial killer wouldn't quite qualify for the category of anything happening." Leaving a nursing home, Rebus "made a vow to off himself rather than sit with a shawl across his lap being spoon-fed boiled eggs to the strains of 'Charlie Is My Darling.' " One does not expect him to reach that unhappy point.
Rankin has for some time been the top-selling crime writer in the United Kingdom, and he's one of the most talented in the English-speaking world. There were times, reading this book, that I grew impatient with his complicated plot and his endless digressions, but finally I accepted them simply because that's Rankin, that's the nature of his rowdy genius. At one point, a woman calls Rebus an anarchist, and he replies -- "thoughtfully," we're told -- "I do my best work on the margins." I take that to be Rankin reflecting that he himself does some of his best work on the margins, in the details of place and character that he revels in. You might wish he'd cut a paragraph here or there, but there's no one else like him.