Ian Rankin is one of those authors that I’ve always known about but never had any desire to read. It’s too overwhelming to start on something that’s already nineteen novels in, and it’s hard not to see the writing as a case of quantity over quality when confronted with a back catalogue of that size. I should know, being a fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (forty books in and still going strong), that this line of thinking is complete nonsense, but that’s what comes to mind. I don’t think it helps that these books fall into the crime genre, which can also sometimes impart similar feelings.
I came across a used copy of this, in never-been-read condition, at last year’s book sale. I love detective fiction, which is related to this but slightly different, and the novels are set in Scotland. My parents emigrated from Scotland a few years before I was born. I have citizenship and the country is a part of my history, but having been raised in Canada, it’s also foreign and a real fascination of mine.
This is set in Edinburgh, with a quick excursion to Fife, and follows Detective John Rebus as he helps investigate a missing children case. He isn’t leading the search, but is merely a part of the team. During the investigation, he begins receiving strange letters and tied knots in his office, and he eventually learns he’s more central to the case than he could have ever guessed.
In the video I recently posted of Arthur Conan Doyle, he mentions that part of what led him to create Sherlock Holmes was that he wanted to read about an investigator that actually pieced together the answer with the clues presented rather than stumbling upon it, which is interesting because this is a prime example of the stumbling approach. The reveal near the end of the book is quite hacky.
The killer is a man from Rebus’ traumatic past that he’s blocked out, and the memory is revealed through hypnosis. Rebus’ brother is a performing hypnotist, and when they’re struggling to piece it all together at the end, he steps in. The only saving grace here is that his brother’s occupation is actually introduced quite early on, and in a way that does feel natural, so it wasn’t quite as jarring as it could have been. But still.
Despite this, I did enjoy the book. I like the setting, the atmosphere, and the character of John Rebus. The middle-aged, divorced, and jaded detective who works too much and drinks too much is hardly a unique character, but it’s one that if done right can be quite interesting. I also like how Ian Rankin decided to age him in real-time. Each novel takes place in the year it was published, and Rebus properly ages as the time passes, which is a much more interesting way of writing a series than keeping it static. Aging the character forces its own kind of development as well, so it’ll be interesting to see how that progresses.
With some tighter plotting I could see myself really enjoying these, so I picked up the second in the series. I’m definitely not committing myself to the next eighteen books, but I’ll see how this next one goes.