What’s it about?
It’s about the disappearance of a young girl, Annette McKie, that is very tenuously linked to some historical disappearances of young girls over the past 10 years or so.
The underlying story is that of John Rebus, retired detective, and his unwillingness to let go of police work. Viewed as a bit of a maverick by the top brass when he was in the job, he is now very much viewed as a loose cannon in his role as cold case investigator. He manages to wangle his way into a “live” case and using a mixture of old fashioned leg work, some stretches of truth and boundaries and a lot of guile and cheek, Rebus not only solves the case but manages to embarrass most of the senior policemen (and women) in the Northern Constabulary.
Where is it set?
It is set in Scotland and starts off in Edinburgh but the story takes us all over the countryside from Pitlochry to Aberdeen to Inverness and beyond via the A9, the main road that is almost a character in its own right.
Who are the main characters?
The main character is John Rebus and he is accompanied in his exploits by his old side-kick Siobhan Clarke. She is a DCI now and as he is an ex-DCI there is the potential for a bit of rivalry and needle between them, but there’s not in this story. They fall into their old pattern and their old relationship where he takes the lead – not all of it quite legal – and she provides the sensible balance to his maverick methods of investigation.
We also see Big Ger Cafferty back in the thick of it. A criminal of the Scottish underworld with fingers in many pies, Cafferty feels indebted to Rebus for saving his life previously and the unlikely pair are stuck in a sort of friendship. Rebus hates it but as the saying goes, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” seems to be the way he’s playing it. It attracts the attention of Malcolm Fox from police internal affairs, and he seems hell-bent on drumming Rebus out of his job and into prison.
There is a smattering of new characters in this book – the staff in cold cases, several other police officers in other constabularies, a new chief in Rebus’s old section, the victims themselves, a new set of underworld crime bosses and of course the murderer themselves – and it is easy to get into the story because most of the characters are brand new to us.
How well is it written?
This is a very welcome return to the older style of Ian Rankin’s writing and reminds me a lot of his earlier Rebus books. I had felt that the latter few of the Rebus series had gone off a little bit, maybe because of writing to deadlines or whatever, and the quality just wasn’t there where it was in the first half a dozen or so. Rankin himself has stated that he wanted to retire Rebus to concentrate on other characters and other stories, which he has done for a couple of years. The character of Malcolm Fox was the product of that decision and he has enjoyed a series of books centring on him.
The last book in the Rebus series was “Exit Music”, which seemed to be the right thing to do – Rankin seemed a bit short of ideas, Rebus had become dry and stale, the relationship with the criminal Cafferty had run into some dark alleys, and the character Rebus had reached retirement age so why not exit him with a book with an appropriate title?
However, after a break of about 5 years, Rankin has resurrected Rebus (almost Holmes-like) and what a good decision to do that! My feeling was that as the TV series had taken off, the character portrayed onscreen started to take over the character in the novels and by Exit Music the character had wandered away from the way he started out. I know characters are supposed to develop and grow, but we’ve seen it before where once a literary character gets portrayed on screen before the novelist has finished writing for them, the essence of the character gets corrupted somehow. I’m thinking about Harry Potter, Temperance Brennan, Rizzoli and Isles….the list goes on. Thankfully, the version of Rebus we see here in this novel is a return to his pre-TV days and he is a much more rounded out character with fewer clichés than we had seen in previous novels.
The plot is a decently meaty one to get your teeth into, and barring a few unlikely leaps of imagination (an 18 year old underworld gang boss scaring off the likes of Cafferty? Really??) it is an entirely credible story. We get taken on a tour of the Highlands and it has made me want to go back and visit it again. It is a gorgeous part of the world and Rankin does it justice.
My overall impression?
A cracking good read with plenty going on. A welcome return to the old-style Rebus.
Will I read the next in the series?
If there is one then yes I will. I wasn’t sure after Exit Music whether or not it was worth pursuing my love affair with John Rebus but I’m glad I gave him another chance. The way this book ends there could be room for another, but equally, with the wrapping up of the cold case unit he was working in it could well be a legitimate end for Rebus. Again.
Would I recommend it to my friends?
Yes. Usually if I read a book in the middle of a series then I would recommend to other people that they start at the beginning but this one is different. I think having a break between the last novel and this one has given Rankin the opportunity to almost reinvent Rebus and all the relevant bits of his back story are covered as this story unfolds. You will get to know all that you need to know to understand the characters and their context just by reading this one, so yes, if you are inclined to try Ian Rankin’s Rebus then this is as good a place to start as any.