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Rebus Returns

November 26, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Ian Rankin’s latest crime novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, was published in the UK earlier this month. As always, I ordered it from UK Amazon rather than waiting for US publication. (The US version appears January 15.)

Five years ago, in Exit Music, Rankin retired his great creation, the Edinburgh detective John Rebus. In the interim, Rankin introduced us to Malcolm Fox, who works in Edinburgh’s internal affairs unit and was featured in The Complaints and The Impossible Dead. On reading The Complaints, I wrote

Is there life after Rebus? If Rankin continues with Fox, his new character, I believe there will be. I wasn’t taken in at first. But then Fox wasn’t interesting at first. The events of the novel change him, or bring out features of his personality that were initially hidden. By the end, he is a richly-drawn character, and another iconoclast in the making. He too upsets and outwits superiors. And yet again, assorted crimes from the seemingly mundane and local to possible corruption at high government levels interweave in unexpected ways — unexpected except that we are so accustomed to such plotting that we know Rankin will find a way to draw them together. Contrived? Sure. But that’s part of the fun, seeing our hero figure out how the pieces fit together while everyone else is clueless.

I’m ready for more.

After finishing The Impossible Dead, I wrote:

I quite enjoyed it. Though based in Edinburgh, the principal character, Malcolm Fox, in only the second novel Rankin has written around him, spends most of his time across the Firth of Forth in Fife. Both Rankin and his greatest character, John Rebus, are Fife natives. It’s not unusual for some action in any Rankin novel to take place across the way, but this time Fife is the center of the story, especially Kirkcaldy, which is essentially due north of Edinburgh across the firth. Fox makes daily crossings of the firth on the road bridge (you know, of course, that the Forth Railway Bridge is one of the world’s great, historic structures), even walking across it once, as he tries to unravel a mysterious death in the 1980s and its connections to violent Scottish nationalist groups of the time. The plotting is intricate, engrossing, and ultimately surprising.

I thought I had let go of Rebus. But since learning that he would return in the new Rankin novel, I have been eager to get my hands on it. As I explained in a post a week ago, it was due to arrive two Wednesdays ago, by which time I was a short ways into Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. When the Rankin book finally came, two Fridays ago, I read the first ten pages. But I was pretty well hooked on the Binelli book by then and decided to keep going, finishing it Sunday morning.

Only on Tuesday did I return to Standing in Another Man’s Grave, reading the second ten pages, at which point I realized that had I made it that far the day the book arrived, it would have taken precedence over Detroit City. It was that absorbing. Yet, I didn’t settle into it yet. I had other obligations. Then, when I got home Wednesday — Thanksgiving Eve — we celebrated the start of the long weekend by watching Wes Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom (which, by the way, I highly recommend).

Only on Thanksgiving morning did I finally give myself over to Standing in Another Man’s Grave. I suppose I would have finished it that night if not for the fact that it was, after all, Thanksgiving. We had dinner and guests to attend to. The final 130 pages had to wait for Friday morning.

How is it? Well, obviously, I loved it. Rebus is back to his old tricks, ignoring or insulting superiors, doggedly following up on clues, getting to the heart of the matter while everyone else has other priorities. He continues to smoke and drink excessively, eat limited quantities of anything resembling real food, yet outperform any other member of the police force despite being viewed as a screw-off. Only his former partner Siobhan Clarke, returning as well, shows any appreciation of his approach and ability, even as she is warned by colleagues that continued association with him could drag down her career.

I should explain that Rebus is no longer a detective. The premise with which Rankin has returned him to duty — duty of a sort — is that he is now a civilian employee within a cold case unit. Moreover, retirement age having been raised, he has the option of applying for his old position, an option he appears in danger of killing with his usual misbehavior.

Warning Rebus explicitly of this danger is Malcolm Fox, who doesn’t much like his methods. Fox is a minor character, first appearing on page 73 and then showing up intermittently. Not a likable one either, given his casting as another of the many Edinburgh police who just don’t get what Rebus is about. Here I was, starting to enjoy Fox. Not anymore. Rankin will have an interesting challenge restoring our sympathy for him, especially if Rebus sticks around.

Another star of the book is the A9, a major Scottish roadway running roughly northeast from Stirling and Bridge of Allan through Auchterarder to Perth, then northwest past Pitlochry and Aviemore to Inverness, continuing still farther north to the outer reaches of northern Scotland, ending at Thurso, the northernmost town on the British mainland. Many of the towns along the way are featured in the book, as Rankin drives back and forth looking for clues and interviewing people. A parallel study of a map of Scotland is essential as one reads the book. Much of this area is new to me: Cromarty Firth, Dornoch Firth, Bonar Bridge, Tongue. I’ve been up as far as Inverness, but that was 35 years ago, and I never made it farther.

Then there’s Jackie Leven, the late Scottish singer-songwriter to whom the book is dedicated. In the opening pages of the book, Rebus recalls Leven’s song about standing in another man’s grave, only to discover that Leven is actually singing about standing in another man’s rain. This gives the book its title. Here is Ian Rankin explaining his own confusion regarding the song’s lyrics:

If you watch, you’ll hear Rankin speak of a mondegreen. If you’re unfamiliar with that term, you’ll enjoy learning more about it here or here.

Finally, here is Jackie Leven (accompanied by Michael Cosgrave) singing about another man’s rain:

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