The Impossible Dead

In the hard-drinking, rulebook-tearing DI John Rebus, Ian Rankin created one of the great detectives, a Falstaff of crime fiction. But since Rebus’s retirement in 2007, Rankin has concentrated on a character who might seem better suited to be an attendant lord than a hero, the honourable but slightly dull Inspector Malcolm Fox.

This is the second novel to feature Fox, a divorced teetotaller who spends his evenings in his “bachelor beige” bungalow listening to birdsong on the radio. But where Rankin’s skill in the Rebus books lay in making his larger-than-life hero seem like a real person, his triumph in the Fox novels is to make an all-too-real average Joe seem fascinating.

It helps that Fox is surrounded by colourful characters, notably hard-drinking, wisecracking sergeant Tony Kaye, whom I suspect has been cloned from DNA found on the fag butts Rebus has left in Lothian and Borders Police HQ. Kaye is presumably named after the keyboard player of rock band Yes: since rock fanatic Rebus is now out of the picture and his new hero Fox a signed-up Classic FM fan, Rankin’s trademark anorak-ish music references have become more oblique.

But Fox himself is intriguing, a man who constantly questions his ability to abide by his own strict moral code. Does he pay too little attention to his ailing father, and give too much encouragement to a minxy married colleague? Is he a coward for staying in the unit that investigates complaints against the police – known to the rest of the force as the “Rubber-Sole Brigade”, its officers regarded as sneaks and spies – rather than seeking more challenging work?

As with Rebus, one of the most striking things about Fox is the lengths he goes to, often to his own surprise and against his better judgment, in pursuit of justice. Here, we find him poking his nose into all sorts of juicy cases outside his own mundane jurisdiction, including the dodgy-looking suicide of a man who grassed up a crooked cop and a mouldering 1980s murder case involving militant Scottish separatists.

The Impossible Dead is admittedly a fairly low-key tale compared with Fox’s debut, The Complaints (2009), in which he was suspected of murdering his sister’s boyfriend and framed as a paedophile. As a whodunit, this new volume is rather laboriously constructed (only fans of 1970s comedy series will spot the major clue to the villain’s identity) and Rankin’s political commentary, usually so sharp, is perfunctory.

What is most memorable here is the storyline about the deterioration of Fox’s father, handled so sensitively as to make Henning Mankell’s depiction of the decline of Wallander’s father seem histrionic. Describing Fox’s increasingly strained relationship with his sister seems to engage Rankin more than doling out the thrills and spills. It is our interest in this supremely ordinary man and his family that keeps us reading The Impossible Dead – which is in itself something that Rankin can be proud of.

The Impossible Dead, by Ian Rankin, Orion, RRP£18.99, 384 pages

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