The 17th in Rankin's Inspector John Rebus series is a cracker.
It's late autumn in Edinburgh and late autumn in the career of Detective Inspector John Rebus. As he tries to tie up some loose ends before retirement, a murder case intrudes. A dissident Russian poet has been found dead in what looks like a mugging gone wrong. By apparent coincidence a high-level delegation of Russian businessmen is in town, keen to bring business to Scotland. The politicians and bankers who run Edinburgh are determined that the case should be closed quickly and clinically.
But the further they dig, the more Rebus and his colleague DS Siobhan Clarke become convinced that they are dealing with something more than a random attack - especially after a particularly nasty second killing. Meantime, a brutal and premeditated assault on local gangster 'Big Ger' Cafferty sees Rebus in the frame. Has the Inspector taken a step too far in tying up those loose ends? Only a few days shy of the end to his long, inglorious career, will Rebus even make it that far?
The novel begins ten days before Rebus’ scheduled retirement with the discovery of a dead man on King’s Stables Road, a not-very-populated street. It looks at first as though he’s the victim of a mugging gone very wrong. The victim’s soon identified as Russian dissident poet Alexander Todorov. Inspector Rebus and DS Siobhan Clarke begin the task of tracing Todorov’s movements just before his death. The Powers That Be are interested in having this case quietly closed; a group of powerful Russian businessmen are interested in investing some much-desired capital into Edinburgh, and no-one at the top wants that plan to fall through. The more Rebus, Clarke and their team uncover, though, the clearer it becomes that this is more than a simple case of a mugging gone too far. Matters get more complex when it turns out that Todorov was not popular with this Russian clique, especially one of its leaders, Sergei Andropov, who was actually heard to say he wanted Todorov dead. The team feels a real sense of urgency, too, since Rebus and Clarke want this case closed before Rebus’ last day.
Soon after the investigation into Todorov’s death begins there's another death and Rebus and Clarke begin to uncover a link. It looks as though there’s a conspiracy at work, and Rebus and Clarke try to get to the heart of it.
There's a Russian clique that has had associations with Edinburgh crime boss Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty. The chance that Cafferty might have been involved in Todorov’s murder is all Rebus needs to spur him on to try to put his nemesis away. And then there’s another dramatic event, and just days before he’s to retire, Rebus gets suspended. In the end, painstaking police work, and some astute observations point Rebus and Clarke on the right path.
Several important elements tie this novel together. One of them is that it’s a police procedural. So throughout the novel, we follow the team as they interview people, make sense of lab and forensics reports, follow up on leads and so on. In fact, Rebus gets very important pieces of evidence through those clues. We see the long hours and the stress of police work, too. Rankin also gives readers a look “behind the scenes” at the police station. There are briefings, interviews and the routine of life at the station.
Because this is a police procedural, we also see how the detectives use the connections they have within law enforcement and with the press and other members of the community. Rebus and the team get valuable information from forensics professionals, medical examiners and Scene of Crime Officers (SOCO). And at one point, Rebus wants some information on some of the members of Edinburgh’s Russian community and their possible ties to powerful local people. So he visits journalist Mairie Henderson to get whatever background she can find. This makes the story quite realistic. In real life, solving a murder is very rarely the work of just one person. Most of the time, police detectives depend on teamwork to get the job done. That’s very evident in this novel.
Another element we see in this novel is a set of multiple plot threads that seem to run parallel, but are related. It’s not easy to create more than one strong plot thread in the same novel without distracting the reader, but Rankin’s made that a specialty.
By now we've watched many of the characters grow and evolve through this series, and fans of the series know them as they might know old friends. And yet, although I recommend reading the Rebus series in order, it’s not necessary in order to get caught up in this plot and follow the mystery.
Rebus himself is, of course, the main character in this novel and he is a complex, interesting person. Throughout the novel, we see his characteristic independence, passion for his work, and notable difficulty with “playing by the rules.” He’s a loner, but he has learned to appreciate the work of his team-mates and he’s happy in his way to see Clarke come into her own, so to speak. All of the trademark Rebus traits (the music, the sardonic humour, the toughness, and the reflectiveness) are here, too.
Finally, there’s Edinburgh itself. Rankin’s Edinburgh has its seamy “underbelly” and Rebus isn’t afraid to go there when it’s necessary. But it’s obvious that Rebus loves his hometown and the reader is really “placed” in the city: “Instead of heading straight on in the direction of the Mound, he took a fork at Greyfriars Bobby and descended in the Grassmarket. Plenty of pubs still open and people loitering…When he’d first moved to Edinburgh, the Grassmarket had been a dump – much of the Old Town, in fact, had been in dire need of a face lift…There were people who said that Edinburgh never changed, but this was patently untrue – it was changing all the time.” Against this unmistakable Edinburgh background, Rankin weaves the plot threads together using the police procedural context. And of course, there are the unforgettable characters.
About Ian Rankin:
Born in the Kingdom of Fife in 1960, Ian Rankin graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1982 and then spent three years writing novels when he was supposed to be working towards a PhD in Scottish Literature. His first Rebus novel was published in 1987; the Rebus books are now translated into 22 languages and are bestsellers on several continents.
Ian Rankin has been elected a Hawthornden Fellow. He is also a past winner of the Chandler-Fulbright Award, and he received two Dagger Awards for the year's best short story and the Gold Dagger for Fiction. Ian Rankin is also the recipient of honorary degrees from the universities of Abertay, St Andrews, and Edinburgh.
He lives in Edinburgh but has also lived in London and France.