Rebus, Ready for Retirement
Monday, September 29, 2008
By Ian Rankin
Little, Brown. 421 pp. $24.99
There's a moment in "Exit Music," Ian Rankin's 17th -- and, he says, last -- novel about Detective Inspector John Rebus, when a man with a tape recorder explains, "I'm putting together a sort of soundscape of Edinburgh. From poetry readings to pub chatter, street noise, the Water of Leith at sunrise, football crowds, traffic on Princes Street, the beach at Portobello, dogs being walked in Hermitage . . . hundreds of hours of the stuff." That could be Rankin himself speaking, because in the Rebus novels he's provided a portrait of his chosen city that's as rich, detailed and loving as any that any crime writer working today has given us of any city in the world. "Exit Music" is far from the best of the Rebus novels, but if it is truly the last of them, attention must be paid: This has been one of the best police procedural series ever written.
The Rebus books have taken place in real time. That is, the gruff, hard-drinking, chain-smoking Rebus was 40 when the first novel, "Knots and Crosses," was published in 1987, so he's nearing 60, the mandatory retirement age, when this novel unfolds late in 2006. He has only a week left when he and his friend and protege Detective Sgt. Siobhan Clarke investigate the murder of a visiting Russian poet beaten to death on a dark Edinburgh street. Rebus's superiors are anxious to write off the death as a mugging because a group of visiting Russian businessmen is in town and the city's politicians and bankers don't want them upset. But Rebus, as always, has his hunches, his gut instincts, and he's soon grilling those very politicians and bankers about their possible involvement in the crime. He is particularly suspicious because his old enemy, crime boss Big Ger Cafferty, in his guise of legitimate businessman, has been wining and dining the visitors. Before the novel is half over, Rebus has been suspended from duty for insubordination. That, of course, does not stop him from continuing his investigation, and he's soon under suspicion of attempted murder.
There are some nice valedictory moments in the novel. Near its end, Rebus reflects that he could move away, "but he couldn't see himself ever leaving Edinburgh. It was the oxygen in his bloodstream, but still with mysteries to be explored. He'd lived there for as long as he'd been a cop, the two -- job and city -- becoming intertwined." This, too, could be Rankin talking: Edinburgh has been his home and inspiration since he arrived there to enter the university 40 years ago.
"Exit Music" has some fine things in it, as does any Rankin novel, but overall I found reading it a chore. It's too long, with too many descriptions, too much inane banter, too many marginal characters and a hopelessly convoluted plot. But the biggest problem is Rebus himself. He's always been cantankerous, but I don't recall ever before regarding him, as I did here, as obnoxious. Rankin makes Rebus morally superior to just about everyone he encounters and permits the detective to endlessly ridicule lesser mortals. His victims are presented as unattractive, even loathsome figures. An entirely harmless bisexual is "thin-boned and pale-faced with mousy brown hair and some sort of rash on his face." A banker's "fleshy face had gone from pink to red, highlighting razor rash at the neck." The owner of an art gallery has "a slight paunch," "an expensive weave job" and an "assortment of nips and tucks had stretched the skin tight over the face." And so on. Rankin even tosses in that easiest of salacious cliches, the rich girl gone bad who's trading sex for drugs. If the reader chooses to identify with the high-minded detective, it's easy to feel superior to all those rogues and fools. That may be fun, but it's not good writing. Raymond Chandler, at his worst, did a lot of this, gleefully beating up on blacks and gays for the amusement of his presumably white, straight readers.
The book is punctuated by lazy writing. Bad guys "smirk" too much. I counted five variations of "The blood was rising up Goodyear's neck." (In my experience, people in books blush -- turn scarlet, crimson, tomato-red -- about a hundred times more often than people in real life.) One evening, working late, Rebus drives by the Oxford Bar, one of his favorite hangouts: " 'Not tonight, my love,' he cooed, blowing it a kiss." That's embarrassing. Elsewhere Rankin has a bartender announce, "My girlfriend's a chiropodist," whereupon Rebus quips, "The pillow talk must be scintillating." Yes, about as scintillating as Rebus's wisecracks. It didn't help my reaction to "Exit Music" that I had recently read John Harvey's new Charlie Resnick novel, which possesses all the elegance and discipline that this one lacks.
"Exit Music" shows how desperately editing is needed in publishing today. Publishers push star writers to grind out a book a year, which leads to sloppy writing, which editors then hurry untouched to the presses. This book would have been far better if someone had dedicated a day or two to saving Rankin from his excesses. Instead, his exit music includes far too many sour notes. That's a shame, but the fact remains that Rebus is a great character and this has been a memorable series.