The man just seems to be getting better and better.
Twitter star @Beathhigh, also known as writer Ian Rankin, has been entertaining fans of his Inspector John Rebus novels since the debut of the hard drinking, ex-squaddie in 1987’s Knots and Crosses. Rebus has changed over the years – his musical taste, his sense of humour, his relationships with friends and family – but with this, the 20th novel to deal with the Edinburgh underworld, Rankin may have outdone himself again.
Famously, Rebus was written in tight chronology, aging in real time. This gave Rankin a problem as Rebus was forced to retire in 2007’s Exit Music but Rebus was saved and was able to be brought out of retirement in the darkly brooding 2012 Standing in Another Man’s Grave due to the advent of (the then-Lothian and Borders) cold case units.
I first entered the dark underbelly of this particular crime series through an abridged audiobook of Knots and Crosses (on cassette – I’m old) read by James MacPherson in his pacifying, undulating Scottish lilt, somewhere around the year 2000. By the time Rankin published The Naming of the Dead in 2006, I was hooked and hugely impressed with the author’s ability to meld a gripping narrative with real life events in faction-style rarely so successfully achieved in the orbit of tartan noir.
However, whilst I think this was the time that Rebus as a character really got his hooks into the reading public’s imagination, I actually believe the post-retirement novels have been even more satisfying, even if the contemporary references are now broad brush strokes designed to add colour rather than driving plot in the quite the way of old.
Even Dogs in the Wild is a novel of big themes – death and love (of course) – but also of families and relationships; parents and children, friends and enemies. Exemplifying these themes are the characters who pump the heart of Rankin’s tale.
Rebus and Big Ger Cafferty have mellowed from the ying and yang of Edinburgh’s mean streets to a pair of bickering pensioners with more fight left in them than outsiders expect – the Still Game Jack and Victor of organised crime and detection, if you will.
Rebus trying to improve his relationship with his daughter Sammy at the prompting of Malcolm Fox, as Fox’s own father ails and his sister thrashes about in hurt and confusion.
It is the arcs of the characters which are so satisfying. Rankin has also moved Malcolm Fox from the uptight sober (literally and metaphorically) semi-policeman of The Complaints to a touching foil for Rebus and Siobhan, almost becoming natural police (as McNulty would say) and dancing around a relationship with DI Clarke which is supportive, if not brimming with passion.
Rebus, Clarke and Fox are becoming The Good , The Bad and The Ugly (although which is which is anyone’s guess) of these tales but the passing of batons and dying of immature lights are echoed on the other side of the street by Cafferty’s dealings with too-cool-by-half upstart Daryl Christie making his third appearance.
Finally, I listen to these novels using the (thankfully unabridged) Audible downloads – no more cassettes. James Macpherson is still doing a grand job and has the tonal shifts to represent all of the characters with realism and subtlety.
I don’t know if it’s because we’ve been with the characters for so long, or because to read characters we know so well and to see them change and adjust to new realities, but Rankin is better than ever. I just hope that a) no one tries to do another terrible adaptation of these and b) that they are still wheeling Rebus out in his bath chair for Rebus 40.