Rebus reborn

Standing In Another Man’s Grave, by Ian Rankin, Orion, RRP£18.99, 356 pages

Ian Rankin’s cranky Edinburgh detective John Rebus has been away for five years. As he ages in real time, Rankin’s fans might have assumed that the hard-living DI Rebus would by now have had a deathbed reconciliation with his daughter before succumbing to emphysema or liver failure.

But there’s life in the old dog yet. Having been farmed out to Edinburgh’s civilian cold case unit, he sees a reprieve – courtesy of the rising retirement age – and successfully reapplies for his old position with the CID. Then Rebus heads out of town in his old Saab in search of the connection between a number of girls who vanished across a decade on the same lonely arterial road. When their decayed remains start turning up his suspicions are confirmed.

If this murder plot is less complex than usual (this is Rebus’s 18th outing), it allows more room for the curmudgeon to expound his views, bark orders and take note of the towns with distilleries. He may be about to derail the career trajectory of his former partner Siobhan Clarke but doggedly hunts his man in the face of resistance from inside the force, especially his old enemy Ger Cafferty’s attempts to undermine him.

Rankin’s two most recent novels have featured the fresher-breathed but less appealing Malcolm Fox from the complaints and conduct department (his “drink of choice was Appletiser. He never touched alcohol, not these days ... ”) and here the two cops cross paths, a device that lets Rebus express disdain for the clipboard classes. By leaving Edinburgh behind we lose one of Rankin’s best characters, but there is ample compensation in Rebus’s picaresque voyage through rural Scotland, finally arriving at the chill twilight of the nation’s eastern peninsula. There is even a welcome thread of political comment about the country approaching a future-defining moment.

Rankin gives us bare and melancholy locations, ruminations on mortality and an inner darkness born of his hero spending time in too many autopsy rooms, but Rebus remains crime fiction’s most consistent character, even though his television incarnation conjures a slightly different figure. For regular readers, the enjoyment comes from watching an old friend doggedly trudge through police procedure, armed with a cup of instant soup and a sarcastic rebuke. Rankin’s dialogue flows so naturally that it’s easy to dismiss his subtler gifts; no one captures the bleak grandeur of Scotland, or the mindset of those charged with upholding its law, in quite the same way. As Siobhan points out, this case has put a spring in Rebus’s step. It’s safe to expect a follow-up.

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