Ian Rankin, his first seven Rebus novels
Ian Rankin is one of the best known and best liked crime writers in Britain today. His Rebus series of mysteries (now ended) are hugely popular and have been widely translated. TV series have been made from the books and I even have a guide to Rankin’s Edinburgh on my iPhone.
For those who’ve not read them the books take place mostly in Edinburgh. Rebus is a detective and each novel generally starts with a murder. As Rebus investigates he finds that the murder is more than it seems and before matters are resolved he has to wade into some very murky waters. We’re in solid genre territory here, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
I’ve read the first seven of Rankin’s novels and have thought recently about reading some more. Before doing so it seemed worth writing some brief comments on each of those first seven and on Rankin’s creation more generally. It’s going to be brief for each because it’s been a while since I read these, and while I still have them there’s a limit to what I can say about books I read well over a year ago (and some more than two or three years ago).
I have each book in an Orion paperback edition. Those editions come with a foreword from Rankin discussing each book in turn and those forewords are well worth reading in their own right. In them Rankin talks for example about how early on he made Rebus a jazz fan, then realised that he’d just lumped his own tastes onto a character for whom they made little sense and so slowly over time changed him into a lifelong rock music (particularly Rolling Stones) fan.
That kind of detail and insight into the actual craft of making the books is fascinating. It also sheds a lot of light on the problems of the first book, which is overwritten (as Rankin admits) and confused.
Rankin never intended first off to write a series. The first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, was supposed to be stand alone. Rebus here is a war veteran with PTSD now working in the Edinburgh police. Someone is murdering young girls and as Rebus investigates the clues start to point suspiciously back at him. He’s having blackouts, could he be the killer?
Obviously not, he’s the hero of over a dozen books. Back when this was written though of course he could have been, and in the first draft he died in the end (Rankin must be pleased he changed that…).
Overall, it’s ok, but not great. Rebus isn’t yet a particularly convincing character and his interests are those of the student who wrote him (again, as Rankin admits). The plot is overwrought and so is the language. If I hadn’t heard they got a lot better I doubt I’d have continued.
Next came the much improved Hide & Seek, and this time Rankin made Edinburgh part of the story. Edinburgh in the first novel is a bit generic and that’s still true here but it’s starting to feel more real. Rebus investigates a dead junkie found in a squat and the trail leads him to a web of vice and corruption among the city’s elite. It’s by no means flawless. Rankin hits the reader over the head with the Jeykll and Hyde references and to be honest I can’t actually remember much of it, but it’s a noticeable improvement on the first.
The third takes Rebus to London. After the events of the first novel he’s seen as possibly an authority on serial killers and so is brought in to help the Met with one. That stretches credulity, and so does most of the rest of what’s really not a very good novel. The whole serial killer motif feels tacked on from some other book or series and the big reveal at the end is trite. If I hadn’t enjoyed the second, or if this had been my first, I’d have bailed at this point.
After that though it gets much better. Rebus is back in Edinburgh and that matters because Rankin is above all a Scottish writer. He references Muriel Spark (on whom he wrote his thesis if I recall correctly), Stevenson, James Hogg. He’s just a better writer when he’s writing about Scotland and about Edinburgh, and in the next four novels that’s exactly what he does.
Four (Strip Jack) has a Scottish MP who becomes the subject of a campaign to destroy his life. It’s a solid outing and an enjoyable crime novel, though again not incredibly memorable. In the foreword Rankin mentions how with this one he moved Rebus from a fictional street and police station to a real one, and of how “My long apprenticeship was nearing its end.” It’s after this point Rebus starts to live in real Edinburgh streets and pubs and not their fictionalised equivalents as has been the case up until now.
Five (The Black Book) brings in a series villain in the form of local gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty (he’d appeared before, but not in a major role) and Rebus’s wastrel brother. The plot is satisfyingly dense revolving around a five year old hotel-fire which may have links to other crimes dating back to the 1950s and ones happening today. It’s a definite improvement.
From there the series genuinely kicks into gear. Six (Mortal Causes) takes place during the Edinburgh Festival and involves the murder of a local gangster’s son by what appear to be sectarian extremists. There are links to the previous novel (which also commented on sectarianism in passing) but more importantly Rankin here addresses particularly Scottish concerns.
I grew up with Scottish sectarianism, which remains a live issue (though not as a rule to the extent it does in this novel, thankfully). My mother’s side of the family are Catholic, my father’s atheist (which counts as Protestant). The linking of the two through my parents was scandalous, and even today which football team you support in Glasgow is determined by which side you’re on. Just a very few years ago I had an uncomfortable ride with a taxi driver who took the time to share his views with me on Catholic scum. I lacked the courage to mention that technically I’m one of them.
Edinburgh too gets much more heavily used here. Rankin explores tunnels under the city (he did that in the first novel too, but this time they’re actually there) and uses its geography much more. I’d enjoyed the previous couple, but this volume for me really justified the effort I’d put in getting this far.
If you’re not Scottish the issues Rankin explores may be less powerful, but that’s as it should be. Ultimately he is a Scottish writer and he’s exploring here matters which in Scotland are still real problems. What’s noticeable though by this point is that as an author he’s at his best when engaging with his own culture and country, and at his worst when he departs from that and writes more generically.
The seventh novel and the last I’ve read is Let it Bleed. It opens with a heavy duty action sequence which Rankin says in the foreword was written at the time with a view to television. The plot takes Rebus into the world of Scottish politics with a major figure’s daughter going missing and evidence of past chicanery and again it’s just a well crafted crime novel set in a recognisable Scotland.
The foreword mentions that the US imprint actually has an extra chapter. Rankin intentionally left some loose ends in his plot. His US publisher required them tidied for that market which he did, but since he thought that tying up added nothing to the book he took it back out for the UK reprint which I have. If you do pick it up I’d therefore suggest avoiding the US version since Rankin clearly thinks the extra chapter a mistake.
And there we are. If you’re considering picking up Rebus then I’d probably kick off with The Black Book. The four before it just aren’t as good, and it introduces characters who’ll be worth knowing later. My other tip is that the books flatly read better if you read them with a mental Scottish accent (that’s an internal Scottish accent, not an accent that’s mental). The rhythm of Rankin’s lanugage can be a bit flat if read mentally in English (or American or whatever), but if read in Scottish it’s suddenly much truer. It’s not obvious, but the mental shift does make a real difference.
I’m conscious that I’ve written all this without any quotes. It’s hard to pick them out after this length of time. I did find though that on Ian Rankin’s own site he has extracts from each of his novels. I’ve linked here to one I particularly liked, and if you dig around you’ll find lots of others:
The constable shook his head. – I’ve linked to one in particular, if you scroll to the bottom the Walt Disney joke is very Scottish…