It’s been 20 years since Ian Rankin’s first novel about Edinburgh detective John Rebus reached these shores, and during those two decades Rebus has become one of the great modern cops, a kind of Scottish cousin to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, who arrived at about the same time.
In terms of British crime fiction, Rankin led a generation of writers who defiantly rejected the older tradition of murders in stately country houses that were solved by swells in tuxedoes. There’s little stately about the pudgy, disheveled, hard-drinking, chain-smoking Rebus. Rankin, who sang in a punk band in his youth, bangs out a rich, rowdy prose that brought new energy to British crime fiction.
His hero, the authority-hating Rebus, fought with both criminals and police superiors through 17 novels, then abruptly retired from the Edinburgh police force at the end of “Exit Music” (2007). Now, Rankin has Rebus back on the job, as belligerent as ever. But he’s a civilian employee now, working cold cases, just as the 60-something Harry Bosch is doing over in Los Angeles.
A mother approaches Rebus about her daughter, who’s been missing since New Year’s Eve of 1999. The mother demands answers and points out that two other young women have since disappeared along the same highway in the north of Scotland. Soon, other women go missing up there. One was hitchhiking. One had a flat tire. Are they runaways? Or is a serial killer at work?
Rebus, assisted by his longtime colleague Siobhan Clarke, sets out doggedly to find the truth. It’s a good mystery, but there’s a lot else going on in the story. He’s back in touch with his daughter, who lives with her boyfriend in a cabin up north, where the trouble is. Rebus is struggling with new police technology that baffles him. And he’s battling with a new generation of by-the-book police officials who see him as a dinosaur, the last of a troublesome breed who got too cozy with criminals and spent too much time in bars and too little in the gym.
Rankin involves Rebus with three generations of Edinburgh criminals, each of whom might know something about the disappearances. One is his old rival Big Ger Cafferty, semi-retired now but still with a hand in local crime. In one angry exchange with the sinister gangster, “Cafferty’s eyes were sudden dark tunnels, leading to darker places still.” Another suspect is a middle-aged bar owner who lives with the mother of a missing girl. Might his enemies have kidnapped or killed her? Or he himself? Finally, there’s the missing girl’s 18-year-old brother, who, despite his tender years, may be the most dangerous criminal of them all.
It’s a solid, readable novel, but not without flaw. On Rebus’s frequent trips to the north of Scotland to investigate the murders, Rankin goes on too long about the mountains and trees and villages. He wants us to understand what a vast, strange, beautiful country Scotland is, but lists of highways and village names are not the way to do it. A line like this is better: “A nation of five million huddled together as if cowed by the elements and the immensity of the landscape surrounding them.”
Some readers may tire of the countless moments when Rebus lights another cigarette or opts for one more nightcap, even though these scenes do take on a certain humor, as when Rebus, deep in the northern wilderness, reflects that it may be the farthest he’s ever been from a bar in his life.
There were times, with all his smoking and drinking, plus his wheezing when he climbs stairs, and his fear that he can’t pass another police physical, that I wondered if Rankin was preparing us for Rebus’s death. It’s a problem. What do you do when a beloved detective is too old to hang around the station house? Give him a much-deserved retirement, which he would probably hate? Or let him go out in a blaze of glory, if a heart attack brought on by decades of over-indulgence can be considered glorious? Does such a fate await the irascible Rebus? No tip-offs here. It’s enough to say that it’s good to have the old reprobate back one more time.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
Standing in another man’s grave
By Ian Rankin
Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown. 388 pp. $25.99