September 8, 2007


Rebus at rest (ALLAN MASSIE, 9/08/07, The Scotsman)

[I]f Ian Rankin is really pensioning Rebus off, then now is the moment to take stock.

The first thing to say is that in the Rebus novels Rankin has not only produced the most sustained body of fiction devoted to modern Edinburgh, but has made it once again a city of the mind as Dickens made London and Chandler Los Angeles. He has changed the way people imagine the city.

It is a poetic vision of the place. And, though it is reinforced by much realistic and topographical detail, it is not ultimately realistic. The real city is less dramatic and less dangerous than the one Rankin portrays. Yet he persuades us otherwise.

Second, he has grasped, as few do, the possibilities of the crime novel, perhaps the only fictional form today that can incorporate all levels of society. In the modern literary novel, social connections are generally horizontal; the crime novel is capable of making vertical connections, of bringing low life and high life convincingly into contact with each other - as, for example, Scott did in The Heart of Midlothian.

Thus the Rebus novels have a richer texture than most literary fiction can aspire to these days. At one point in Exit Music he writes: "For a while now, he'd known the truth - that it wasn't so much the underworld you had to fear as the over world. Maybe that explained why Cafferty had, to all purposes and appearances, gone legit. A few friends in the right places and deals got done, fates decided. Never in his life had Rebus felt like an insider ... the less he felt he belonged, the more he came to mistrust the others around him, with their games of golf and their 'quiet words', their stitch-ups and handshakes, palm-greasing and scratching of backs."

Awareness of the corrupting power of money and influence permeates the saga. This too is a poetic vision. One can't believe that high officials in the First Albannach Bank, which takes the place of the Royal Bank of Scotland in this novel, are as unscrupulous, depraved and contemptible as they are shown to be, but in the course of reading disbelief is suspended.

Rebus himself is a romanticised hero, very much Chandler's "shopsoiled Galahad". There is enough detail to make him credible, even though we know that a policeman who behaved as he does would long ago have been dismissed from the force. Yet he works, as a private detective - the lonely man walking down mean streets - could never work. Rankin has from an early stage persuasively presented us with the edgy and jealous camaraderie of the team. Rebus is a slob, often violent, ready to take the law into his own hands, not above arranging, as happens here, for a nasty act of revenge to be possible, all in the name of his concept of justice. Yet there is a gritty integrity to him which commands our respect, and even affection.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 8, 2007 7:44 AM
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