I have an aunt who once told me in confidence that the greatest relief of her life was when she read an article explaining that she did not have to read Proust in order to be considered well read. She is, by any normal, sane standards, an exceedingly well read lady but no amount of madeleines and tea or epiphanies can persuade her that she wants to wade through the full text of ‘A La Recherche du Temps Perdu’.
As someone who is still struggling to chart the full course of ‘Swann’s Way’, I understand those readers who share her aversion when it comes to the writer regarded as the English Proust, Anthony Powell and his masterwork, ‘A Dance to the Music of Time‘. Interestingly, Ian Rankin does not appear to be one of them. In fact, he’s quite the fan.
I was a member of the Anthony Powell Society (I lapsed, I’m sorry! I’m coming back – promise!) but every year, I re-read the full 12 novel sequence (or, perhaps, re-listen is a more apt description as I listen to the mighty Simon Vance’s audiobook recording?)
This time, I had to bench this particular pleasure as I I was impatient to listen to the latest John Rebus outing – ‘Taggart’ actor James MacPherson having recorded all of the Rebus novels to date and done a superb job.
I’ve long believed that Rankin is foremost chronicler of contemporary Scottish life. From as far back as ‘Set in Darkness‘ which hinged upon – and poked fun at – the furore around the opening of the Scottish Parliament, it has long been obligatory to say that ‘Edinburgh is as much a character as the people’ (a compliment used so often it sets my teeth on edge, what it does to Rankin’s dentistry I can only imagine.)
But, for me, it always felt that it was ‘Naming of the Dead’ where Rankin really began to embrace parachuting Rebus and his Watson – boy she’d hate that – Siobhan Clarke like action hero Rosencrantz and Guildensterns charging through the 2005 G8 summit.
And then Rebus reached retirement age and that was that.
Except it wasn’t. Rankin managed the seemingly impossible. He brought our misanthrope hero back, he got to have the joy of seeing Clarke outrank her mentor and then he got to play fantasy comic book team up by including anti-Rebus goody two shoes, Malcolm Fox.
Rebus’ Moriarty, “Big Ger” Cafferty also lurched towards retirement although –spoiler alert – maybe not of the lasting variety.
Last year, 30 years after he first beat the streets of our capital, a character now as unrecognisable as the city he is associated with, Rebus took a year off.
It was void in my reading life, for sure.
Hence my impatience to get hold of the big man’s 22ndouting. And then: somewhat unexpectedly, it was Powell that ‘In a House of Lies‘ reminded me of.
You could detail the plot: body in car in woods, old case reignited, Rebus on original investigation, the veteran doing a favour for Clarke who has been receiving threatening calls, but you know what? It’s not important (sorry Ian, I can only imagine how annoying it is after all your hard work) but I just like seeing the team back together.
I love Rebus bristling with Fox, walking his new sidekick Brillo, see him still driving his knackered Saab (“It’s not vintage, it’s old,” he testily informs another character at one point.) It’s comforting to spend time with Clarke.
For a reader, it’s like a warm bath – albeit one with murder, low budget Scottish film making and a distinctly tongue in cheek hat tip to the more cosmetic societal changes of the MeToo movement. Perhaps the greatest trick Rankin pulls off is introducing new characters like
The way characters move in and out of each other’s lives is Powell-esque, as are the coincidences. I wonder how the books play down south where I imagine having a detective who worked the original case and all the spiralling connections seems far-fetched. For those readers I say: come to the Highlands, it seems positively weird if you don’t run into colleagues all the time.
So, can you directly compare Rebus world to the comic novels of upper middle class manners of ‘Dance’?
Course you can.
John Rebus as Nick Jenkins? I think not. Our hero is far too down to earth and interesting to play the arrogant first person protagonist of Powell’s world. But he (used to) drink enough to be classic soak Charles Stringham and is charming enough when he wants to be to get his own way with a passion for danger so, perhaps, he is the Peter
Templar of the sequence.
Siobhan Clarke is, I think, Emily Brightman. An esoteric pull, I admit, but this seemingly minor character has Clarke’s desire to cut through the flowery prose which obfuscates and frustrates clarity (see her demolition of the French gutter press in book 11 ‘Temporary Kings‘) which powers Siobhan.
Malcolm Fox is more tricky. He has elements of the Widmerpool about him in his difficult family life, his desire to be “good” (whatever that means in his world) but he also wants to be loyal and, across his immersion in the word of Rebus has become a far more interesting character than in his more staid standalone world. His seemingly magnetic romantic attraction brings to mind Ralph Barnby, although a Byronic Lothario painter is about as far from Malcolm as could be imagined, so a hybrid Widmerpool, Barnby and civil servant Sir Leonard Short is possibly convincing, even if the mind boggles.
And so what of Big Ger Widmerpool then? He has waltzed in and out of the dance of Rebus’ life for nigh on 30 years and, even though pretenders to the throne like Daryl Christie are strong characters, even the best of these never quite move past Pepsi to the big man’s full fat Coke.
That’s why this is where the comparison breaks down. Powell never wrote anyone like the Gothic Cafferty. He’s more like John Le Carre’s Karla, locked in intellectual combat with his nemesis, as Rebus’ dance card fills and people come and go.
Powell’s 12 novel sequence is, arguably, the finest long form work in English. Certainly, as roman fleuve go, it is accessible, amusing and poigniant.
But what Rankin has achieved is truly remarkable. If it was “literary fiction”, whatever that is, it might get treated with less snobbery but for a razor sharp analysis of the monumental changes which have taken place in the last 30 years in Scotland, this is as fine writing as you could ask for. Funny, sharply observed, moving, pacey and rooted in a world recognisable to ordinary folk. And he’s done that over 22 novels (in this sequence alone).
In a 2015 piece about ‘Even Dogs in the Wild‘, I suggested that Rankin was getting better and better. On this evidence, and unlike the unholy trinity of Rebus, Clarke and Fox, I may have understated the case.