The girl screamed once, only the once.

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…

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15 Comments

Filed under British Crime Fiction, Crime Fiction, Scottish Literature

15 responses to “The girl screamed once, only the once.

  1. My father was an atheist which counts as Protestant, that’s hilarious. I read the first Rankin novel and didn’t even find it all that bad but not fabulous either. I could feel he had potential. You convinced me to read another. Good to know the second isn’t that good. I have a problem to skip books in series even if the one or the other isn’t too good. Danielle from A Work in Progress reviewed Gillian Galbraith’s Alice Riley Mysteries, also set in Edinburgh. Don’t know if you know them. Good to know about the accent, will keep that in my mind when reading. Have quite a few Scottish people around me usually, so I should manage… If not I can always think of Gerard Butler in Dear Frankie. Since allusions to music have a certain importance in his books he might be a musical writer, meaning, one whose sentences have a certain rhythm…

  2. Are we to conclude from the structure of the post that Rankin also doesn’t write in paragraphs? :-)

    On a more serious note — and I realize this is near heresy even to an atheist (Protestant) — do you have an opinion on the worth of the Rebus TV series? And if you do, whether the Hannah or Stott version is better, if either? I’ll confess that reading crime novel series is not my cup of tea, but Mrs. KfC and I are major fans of UK television detectives (Foyle, Morse, Tennison, Barnaby, Wycliffe, Lewis all come to mind). Okay, a major part of the reason is the on location shooting (and hence Edinburgh would be very appealing).

  3. OK, I don’t get the Disney joke.

  4. You must have read my mind. Over Xmas, I moved some books around and came across my stack of Rankin. I haven’t got past the first in the series, and looked at the stack thinking I should try again. I don’t have the whole set but have quite a few. Couldn’t tell you how many or which off the top of my head.

    I’ve never considered that problem before–the maturation of a series character, and as you say what we imagine one decade, might be a problem twenty years on. I can see why the author’s foreword was so valuable. I wonder if readers have been annoyed by the shift in habits (jazz to rock for example).

    I should give Rankin another go. I liked some of his stand-alones, and I do enjoy the series format.

    I mean to read more detective books in 2011, but I am being pulled back a few decades at the moment.

  5. Comments generally on Tuesday when I’m back online, but I had to post one now even though it’s done using my phone.

    My formatting! I changed one word using my iPhone WordPress app and its deleted all the formatting! There were paragraphs Kevin, and come Tuesday shall be again.

    In the meantime I’m amazed anyone’s managed to read it.

  6. I struggle to skip books in a series too Caroline. It’s partly why I posted this. I thought some might find it helpful to know when I thought they started getting good.

    Kevin, I’ve not seen the tv version, though I’d actually quite like to. I don’t have a view therefore. I will say that Ken Stott certainly looks the part, but that’s not always the most important thing.

    Ronak, it’s really just the ignorance coupled with the tone. If you’re Scottish it’s a very recognisable piece of dialogue.

    Guy, the first and the third were for me the weakest (the serial killer ones). Unless you are a completist though some of those early ones are definitely skippable.

  7. The descriptions of both tv versions look interesting — I’ll order and report back as your Rankin project unfolds.

  8. I’d certainly be interested Kevin. To be honest, they may well make better tv shows than books…

  9. The two sets of Rebus television dvds have arrived and I am delighted to deliver a report.

    Over-arching view: Rankin’s novels make for great tv. I suspect the video is even better if you have read the books.

    There are two “series”. The first, with Josh Hannah as Rebus, has four 90-minute episodes — Black and Blue, The Hanging Garden, Dead Souls and Mortal Causes. It is very dark and very well done. All four want a second view (and deserve it) but do indicate that Rankin translates to the screen very well.

    The second series with Ken Stott as Rebus has less “noir” to it — but much better production values (that would mean “scenery” — when you live where we do, images of Edinburgh are very welcome). These episodes are only 60 minutes and the cramping shows — I haven’t read any of the books but I continually felt that I would like the show better if I had. Too many things just got rushed.

    All in all, I would recommend both sets. And yes, since I don’t read crime books, they are probably even better for those who do.

  10. Thanks Kevin.

    The show sounds like the sort of thing I’d enjoy. Lots of fun. How did you find the two actors compared in the role? I appreciate you don’t know the books, but he changes in those too and they’re both fine actors so it’s interesting to hear how they work in this.

  11. I think you would like it, particularly since you know the books better than I do (actually, I don’t know them at all). It is worth watching both actors interpretations — Hannah goes to the darker side, Stott gives us a more human character. We have only watched them once and they are definitely going to be revisited — at this stage I would not state a preference for either since both are very good. I would certainly recommend either for an evening of watching.

  12. We have completed our first run-through of both Rebus television series, so I thought I would offer an updated report. Perhaps it is best summarized by saying that after finishing the last episode in the three-season Stott series we immediately went back to episode one of year one to start a second run-through.

    Both series are excellent — we probably like Stott better but that is mainly because he gets 10 episodes to more firmly establish his character (not to mention the rest of the ensemble. I can’t say how faithful they are to the novels but can say that they use that base to create some exceptional television.

    I think that judgment is a tribute to Rankin, even if I won’t be running out to read the books. Rereading your review, the episodes reflect the same strengths. And I will give the tv production company credit for doing an excellent job of including a lot of Edinburgh — we have both been there a couple of times but not often and very much liked the atmosphere it created for the films.

    I would not that the Hannah episodes are 100 minutes and the Stott ones only 60. That provides more depth and contemplation in Hannah and some head-scratching with Stott (especially for those of us who are already struggling a few phrases behind with the Scottish accent). Certainly the second viewing of the episode last night had more clarity than the first — a tribute to both the author and crew that brought his work to the screen.

    If Guy is dropping buy, nine episodes of Detective Montalbano are on their way somewhere and should arrive soon. Sheila wants them started immediately upon their arrival so she can brush up on her Italian; I figure subtitles are a major step up for me on Scot’s brogue. Once we have watched a few, I’ll offer a comparison comment here, or on my blog, or somewhere.

    Max, you put us on to The Sandbaggers, which we love. I’d say Rebus merits comparison — similarly complex plots, with great character development. And, given that they were produced a few decades later, much higher production values. I’m presuming the new house has an HD widescreen — these fill it up beautifully.

  13. The new house is still being furnished, so the tv got left until we’ve decided what else goes in the living room. We’ll be getting an HD widescreen later this year though.

    Oddly enough in the meantime we’ve noticed that our ancient analogue shows a better picture with the HD than the normal channels. Those old analogue tvs were sometimes surprisingly high quality.

    Good to hear how good the series are. Given what you say though I may leave them until we’ve got the new tv. Hopefully that won’t be too long (hopefully as it’s only contingent on our getting a new sofa, and I’d quite like finding the right one not to take too long).

  14. Max: I would certainly wait for the new sofa and television. Both these series have been around for a while.

    The Detective Montalbano series is exceptional — right up there with the best television anywhere. It is all set on Sicily, with exceptional visuals, but even more has great characters and excellent acting. The plots are complex, as befits television adapted from novels, which means a second viewing will be essential to understanding them.

    Sheila has visited Guy’s blog for a review of Camilleri’s books on which the episodes are based (see here) and we have ordered them for potential follow-up. I think she is more likely to read them than I am, but I would like to have them on hand.

    What impressed me most about the DVDs is that while American crime television has no subtleness at all (the more violence the better), and the Brits do nuance much better, Italians love to make their crime television as complex as possible.

    I know you spent some time in Naples, which I am assuming means you have at least some Italian. Sheila’s — which is rudimentary — was adequate enough (augmented by subtitles) and she is loving the experience in bringing her language up a notch or two as she is going on a trekking trip to Sardinia and Corsica this summer. This is all off topic — I think the comparisons with Rebus and Rankin’s work are quite appropriate. And both author’s produced some very good work for television adaptations.

  15. I studied Italian in Naples, though it’s presently rusty. Sardinia and Corsica eh? I’ve not yet been to either. Very nice.

    Anyway, thanks for the detailed comments. All duly noted I assure you.

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