The Black Isle on the left from above Beauly. Photo: Roy Hay
Ian Rankin, Standing in another man’s grave, Orion Books, London, 2012.
Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before him, Ian Rankin had to revive his main character, John Rebus, after pensioning him off in a novel six years ago. Doyle sent Sherlock Homes over the Reichenbach falls with his nemesis Moriarty, while Rankin only retired his man. He then tried a couple of other tacks—a weak heist story, Doors Opening, and a couple of crime procedurals involving the ethical standards unit in the police, widely known as ‘the complaints.’ These involved another flawed protagonist, Malcolm Fox, who appears in the latest Rebus revival, trying to ensure that the dinosaur does not return to the force via the back door.
They say a novelist should write about what he knows and Rankin’s opus on Rebus was, with few exceptions, firmly set in Edinburgh with occasional excursions across the Forth to the Kingdom of Fife from where the author originated. That leant a deep sense of locale to the stories and reinforced the close awareness of the evolving social and political scene in Scotland over the last quarter-century. Now Rankin and his family have a house in Cromarty on the Black Isle in the far north-east of Scotland and so the latest Rebus is a road movie in the making, with the A9—the main road to the north—figuring centrally in the book.
I have to add a personal story at this point. Last northern summer we were in the United Kingdom, primarily for the London Olympic Games, but during the trip we visited my sister and her family near Beauly at the landward end of the Black Isle. One day we set out for Cromarty for lunch. We walked along the foreshore past the Cromarty stone memorial to the migrants who left for Canada or perhaps Australia during the highland clearances aboard the Cleopatra and other ships listed around the perimeter of the stone.
The Cleopatra as she swept past the town of Cromarty was greeted with three cheers by crowds of the inhabitants and the emigrants returned the salute, but mingled with the dash of the waves and the murmurs of the breeze, their faint huzzas seemed rather sounds of wailing and lamentation than of a congratulatory farewell.
The Inverness Courier, 22 June 1831, possibly written by Hugh Miller, the Scottish philosopher and geologist, who lived most of his life in Cromarty in the early nineteenth century.
Afterwards we walked round to the Emporium, a wonderful bookshop which also serves superb coffee. It is well up to Melbourne standard! The woman who runs the shop told me Ian Rankin is now a local resident. She said, ‘The other day the owner of the shop came up from London with a pile of Rankin novels and my assistant was wondering where to put them.’ ‘Just pile them up in the corner,’ was the instruction, when a voice said, ‘I see you have a proper estimation of the worth of my husband’s books.’ This was Mrs Rankin! All passed off well thereafter.
Now to the book itself. It is not vintage Rankin. Indeed, my wife thinks his heart was not in it, and that at several points the story got away from the author. Now I know crime writers often say they have no idea how the book is going to turn out or what the characters will get up to on the way. However, this book turns Rebus into a caricature of himself, almost as if the Americans had taken over, as they did with Dalziel and Pascoe in the television series, so that two complex characters created by Reginald Hill became pasteboard figures with a very limited range of responses and emotions. So many of the exchanges between Rebus and his police colleagues are repetitive and almost formulaic. Rebus always pushed the boundaries of probity, procedure and good taste but here he is wearily and wearisomely antagonising everyone, including his closest colleague, Siobhan Clarke, the Hibernian fan and now showing much promise as she adjusts to life out of the long Rebus shadow.
Rebus’s relationships with the criminals are also worrying, though my wife thinks they are not villainous enough. Certainly one of them is more trusting of his underling than you might expect. The ending is unbelievable, though I am prepared to admit it, or something like it, may have happened somewhere sometime. As John Silvester keeps demonstrating in his column in The Age real life crime leaves the fictional variety for dead.
One thing does not happen in the book, though it occurs in another part of the highlands. None of the main characters gets lost on the Black Isle. That to me is also unbelievable for even those who have lived in or near the area find the roads at least as confusing and misleading as strangers find the Australian outback.
So Rebus is back, but not in the best of form. Perhaps age is catching up on him or his author is straining at finding how someone a bit older than he is can be made into a really convincing character who is railing against the dying of the light. Or maybe it is just this reader who is getting old and does not want to face the facts of his own decline and the strains his own behaviour places on those around him.