They tried putting the Rebus books on telly, twice, with wildly different actors. Partly for that reason, a lot of people muddle it up with the miserable Taggart series, where drunk cops slouch through council estates investigating ‘muddah’. Rankin’s been using crime to write a social history of Britain, especially Edinburgh, since the late 80s. This one explores the weirdest week of this century (so far), the one that started with the G8 Summit at Gleneagles and had Live8, the announcement of London getting the Olympics and the July 7th bombing. (He’s disappointingly quiet on Eccleston regenerating into Tennant, that week’s other big event). By this time Rankin was himself a public figure and was invited into many of the prestigious places where Rebus is reluctantly allowed in the course of his enquiries. What makes this book as good a start as anyone could want for this series is that the history happening affects the case in unexpected ways, and the reportage of the bits of the demonstration and backstage protocol negotiations that didn’t make it on to television is something unique to this novel. Even if crime isn’t your thing it’s a document of an extraordinary time.
Rebus himself is close to retirement and has made just enough enemies to be still on what seem to be intractable cases. His protegee, Siobhan Clarke, is just experienced enough to lead one of the two cases being handled, the murder of a rapist just out of jail whose death seems to connect to others. The deceased’s employer is a crime-boss whose continued liberty and influence annoys Rebus. Meanwhile, an MP dies in a fall while at the pre-summit negotiations and a smarmy Special Branch officer is persuading the locals to just treat it as a suicide. Clarke’s Hampstead Radical parents are up for the demo and a local councillor is throwing his weight around.
This is the seventeenth book in a series that Rankin started as a quick calling-card before writing the sort of book he thought he’d be doing. Using his home town as a backdrop inclined him to think about Burke and Hare and Robert Louis Stevenson and John Rebus (the name means a sort of picture-puzzle) was only a cop to make his first book, Knots and Crosses, zip along in under a thousand pages. Rankin was surprised to find he’d become a crime writer, and Rebus has become more like the standard maverick-cop-with-a-drinking-problem that gets two-hour TV films made. However, in a surprisingly realistic touch, the character ages and events have consequences, unlike the reset button Reginald Hill presses on Dalziel and Pascoe. There is a real risk that Rebus, already close to retirement (the next book, Exit Music, was intended to be the last) might be fired, not in the ‘you’re off the case… oh all right, you have 24 hours’ formula from Starsky and Hutch et al. Rankin has obviously asked local shopkeepers what they thought about having to shut because of Italian anarchists, clowns, the police from three countries and Midge bloody Ure. He’s clearly thought about what music the protagonists listen to (especially as the book begins with Rebus at his younger brother’s funeral: Quadrophenia by The Who dominates the book to the extent of it being divided into four ‘sides’, like a double album, although Elbow’s Leaders of the Free World provides a counterpoint).
It’s a historical novel set at the time of writing. Ten years from now this book will need footnotes or a Brodie’s guidebook of its own. If you don’t remember Jack Straw, or Dubya falling off his bike, it might be hard to recapture the flavour of the times. Already, comments about AOL and floppy discs and the Forensics boys all trying to be like CSI are red-shifting away from us. This might be how the books survive. If you read some of the earlier ones in our collection it’s almost like reading Orwell or Graham Greene. Tooth and Nail captures London between the Crash of 87 and the Poll Tax riots. If only they hadn’t made TV movies with Ken Stott, Rankin’s reputation would be higher than that of Martin Amis. Which of these will still be read in a thirty years and which will be a ‘what were we thinking?’ oddity like Colin Wilson or Lawrence Durrell. We’ll let history judge but my money’s on Rankin outlasting Amis.
By Tat Wood