In which writewyattuk runs the rule over Standing in Another Man’s Grave, the latest bestseller from acclaimed Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin.
There was a lot of expectation about Ian Rankin’s latest Rebus novel, with plenty of pre-publicity thanks to the BBC’s Alan Yentob Imagine feature on the author and a literary tour that ultimately led to a No.1 hardback bestseller spot at Christmas.
Having spent a few days over the festivities reading the end result, I can say it was well worth the attention. But rather than just covering the 19th Inspector Rebus novel on its own merits (at least I make it 19), I also returned to Knots & Crosses, the first novel featuring the detective – published 25 years before – for a little ‘compare and contrast’.
I wanted to see how much has changed in John Rebus’ world since that debut, and more to the point how Rankin’s writing has evolved. And I found something of an odyssey for an author whom in those intervening years has become something of a master in his field.
While Knots & Crosses had its flaws and pitfalls, it still stands up to scrutiny, not least as a pen-pic of Edinburgh and the author’s world back then. And it was definitely what its author wanted it to be – a page-turner, like every Rankin novel since.
It was his first effort at the genre, and despite a strong hook and plot, somewhat flawed by the author’s inexperience at that point, the drama more poorly executed than you’d expect of Rankin today, not comparing favourably with the later books in his impressive canon. But all novelists make errors, and Rankin clearly learned from his, slowly but surely becoming the fine writer he is today.
He too acknowledges mistakes within Knots & Crosses, not least a subliminal need to parade his literary influences within. His already-jaded detective is a tad too well-read to be credible in places, and his thoughts (written in third person limited omniscient mode, students might say) on the page a little too flowery here and there.
Furthermore, descriptions at key moments are way too deep, for example the climactic subterranean scenes beneath the Central Library, with Rankin yet to take on board the literary trick that ‘less is more’ and ‘show rather than tell’.
The same goes for descriptions of Rebus’ one-night stand, written by a 27-year-old writer fresh from his postgrad studies rather than a detective just turned 40. I wonder how a 52-year-old Rankin would write those scenes now.
I should also pick Rankin up on his depiction of investigative journalist Jim Stevens, his character more drawn from film noir and a diet of TV than any newsroom I knew, although – admittedly – times had changed by the time I became a journalist a decade later.
But for all that, Rankin can still feel proud of his Rebus debut, and 25 years on has clearly learned so much about his craft on the evidence of Standing In Another Man’s Grave.
Five years after we thought we’d seen the last of Rebus in Exit Music, his unlikely hero is a civilian in a cold-case unit, looking into unsolved deaths dating back a decade or so, but increasingly keen to return to his old CID habitats.
A turn of events sees Rebus taken out of his Edinburgh comfort zone, as far from his local pub as ever before, traversing the A9 in his trusty Saab, digging for clues and getting to know a larger-scale Scotland at last. It’s a shame in a way that didn’t happen earlier, if only to give the real-life regulars at the Oxford Bar a break from all those visiting Rebus tourists from around the world.
The latest novel certainly boasts a number of well-drawn characters, our gruff semi-retired detective nicely complemented by those around him, notably DI Siobhan Clarke, but also in smaller measures Malcolm Fox of ‘The Complaints’ – the subject of two previous books – and a host of gangland demons (and I think Rebus would prefer gangland demons to golden daffodils), from old school villains like Ger Cafferty through to a new breed of Edinburgh crims.
Again we have the musical name-dropping we expect from Rankin, something of a signature theme over the years, most obviously here through talk of the late Jackie Leven – to whom the book is fittingly dedicated -and the mis-heard lyric in the title. But there’s also the various Led Zep puns Rebus peppers his conversation with, marking a distrust of his latest adopted boss, James Page.
It’s not just Page, with the majority of police middle management (‘showroom dummies, in Rebus’ parlance) getting similar treatment, and deeper nods to the way the game has changed over the years on both sides of the law (and the corruptive elements in between). Meanwhile, Rebus offers a positive case for the old methods and gut instincts in these modern days of psychological profiling and various technological and social media advances that otherwise suggest his ways no longer relevant.
That battle between historic and advanced methods is mirrored in the criminal underworld rebus often delves so close to, an analogy of old versus new also illustrated by Rebus’ (and Rankin’s) championing of vinyl over digital downloads – this music aficionado clearly not quite ready to dispense with his world in deference to the latest gadgets and fads. Which makes me wonder if we’ll see a Rebus book called The Needle and The Damage Done at some point.
Again – despite his stubborn views and general antipathy towards those around him – I think we like to think we ‘get’ John Rebus, feeling at one with the old curmudgeon as he sticks two fingers up to the number-crunchers and career-minded cronies, preferring his own time-proven approaches to catching baddies.
What’s more, there’s plenty of trademark Rankin humour between the lines of his latest ‘tartan noir’ thriller, and such is the master’s craft that you can taste and smell the stale cigarettes, the dregs in the whisky bottle, and the recently-disturbed earth at the remote locations Rebus’ investigations inevitably take him to.
And while his short, sharp chapter style ensures you feel the need to at least tackle a few more pages before you turn out the light at night, all that pace would be pointless without the kind of intricate, multi-stranded plot Rankin has learned to pull together with such skill.
Getting back to that comparison with Rankin in 1987, he clearly no longer feels a need to be overly-clever, and is all the better and more creative for that, his finely-structured prose and ever-believable dialogue taking you right to the heart of each and every page.
Standing In Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin is published by Orion Books and available from all good booksellers (and plenty of shabby ones too). And for the writewyattuk feature on Ian Rankin’s December visit to Preston, head here