John Rebus returns in the 18th full novel featuring the difficult but successful Edinburgh detective.
I’ve been reading Ian Rankin’s John Rebus novels for close to a decade and have always had a love-hate relationship with this Edinburgh detective. I’m not alone. Rebus’s cynical, impulsive, abrasive, self-destructive ways can play like fingernails on a chalkboard, making it hard for all but a few of the other characters to tolerate, much less “like” John – (poor DS Siobhan Clarke, how does she put up with him?).
But despite Rebus’ expertly drawn flaws, the curmudgeon gets his hooks in you. And it becomes obvious, anyone who tries as hard as Rebus to prove he doesn’t care about anyone or anything has to be hiding something … like how much he cares.
When Rankin retired Rebus in Exit Music – the 17th Rebus novel – and introduced a new Edinburgh character (Malcolm Fox) in (and of) The Complaints (think Internal Affairs in U.S. police terms) – it felt like a huge loss. Rebus hadn’t run his course – and of course, Big Ger Cafferty, king of the Edinburgh underworld, was out of jail and needed someone to keep a careful – and obsessive – eye on him. There are lead characters that grow more and more weary with each passing novel – but Rebus was already worn out and washed up when we first met him. If the chain-smoking hadn’t killed him yet, why put him out to pasture?
Maybe Rankin planned for retirement to do to Rebus what Cafferty considered doing countless times but never did. (Grudging respect? A sense of kinship?) I also knew I’d miss the old school rock and roll or blues music suggestions. It’s always been a bonus to read through what’s on Rebus’ playlist in each novel, though he still favors his LPs with the comfortable hiss and pops between tracks over CDs or digital music (horrors!) for his late night melancholy as he looks out the window of his flat, a quickly disappearing bottle of Lagavulin at his side.
Standing In Another Man’s Grave was a fabulous vehicle to bring Rebus back where he belongs, in the middle of a bloody crime scene. Interestingly, I thought Rankin drew a bit much from a theme and process found in my least favorite Rebus novel, Fleshmarket Alley – (Rebus took a strong and clear and moral political stance, which I thought was out of character – he normally couldn’t be bothered with what the bloody politicians were up to unless it was murder). But having him work as a civilian investigator on cold case files – including a missing person case that may have multiple and current connections – creates the conditions for a triumphant return – even if his boss wishes he would crawl back under a rock.
I would note that Rankin has done as good or better of a job keeping Rebus true to form as any series novelist. That’s why reviewing an individual book doesn’t seem as important to me as asking if Rebus is really back. Is he? He’s still loathed and feared by colleagues and criminals alike. He still won’t give you the time of day unless you have something he needs – then he has all the time in the world. He’s still the character I hate to love or love to hate most in my commercial crime reading. But even if he has one foot in the grave – or both in another man’s grave – he’s back, and that’s what matters.