Local rivalries

Not at all sure about this one. It’s Marilyn Stasio doing the regular Crime column for the New York Times Sunday Book Review:

Retirement isn’t for everyone, least of all John Rebus, the hero of Ian Rankin’s mordant police procedurals set in the shadowy underworld of Edinburgh. In EVEN DOGS IN THE WILD (Little, Brown, $26),Rebus’s unorthodox friendship with the aging crime boss “Big Ger” Cafferty allows this retired detective to attach himself to a police investigation into the murder of a former lord advocate and death threats against other high-profile citizens, including Cafferty.

“Sometimes there’s such a thing as a responsible criminal,” according to Rebus, who believes powerful men on both sides of the law are duty-bound to control the crazies in their ranks. Smart players in this tricky game know that “the world of the gangster was the world of the capitalist.” And the markets for their respective professional services must be protected against competitors like Joe Stark and his son, Dennis.

The presence in Edinburgh of these hard men from Glasgow attracts a special task force of fierce Glaswegian cops who are scarier and less principled than the gangsters. The culture clash felt by cops and crooks alike drolly illustrates the tensions between Scotland’s two major cities. One Edinburgh mobster’s impression of Glasgow — “the people spoke differently here, and had a garrulousness to them that spilled over into physical swagger” — is among the more polite comments.

As in many of the Rebus novels, the multiple plotlines don’t always tie up neatly, or even make sense. But the characters’ relationships prove oddly moving, especially the uneasy father-­and-son bond between Rebus and Cafferty, as well as that between the crime boss Joe Stark and his ambitious son. Acknowledging his conflicted feelings, “Joe wished he could feel something other than an echoing emptiness” when Dennis is killed. Rankin sets up a parallel relationship between Detective Inspector Malcolm Fox and his dying father, but it fails to click because Rebus’s nemesis (in previous books, he worked for internal affairs) is still being reborn as a decent cop. But he’s got a long way to go before he can be free of the impression he gives, of “a soulless, spunkless middle manager from the most boring company on the planet.”

Apologies due and freely offered for quoting that bit in full.

I’m “not sure” for a couple of quibbles

I had my copy of Even Dogs in the Wild on pre-order, and on 5th November. Rankin is an important novelist — a bigger field than just crime fiction — and this, after a two-year lay-off, is an important book. Does it really take two months to come onto the American market?

I see that Rankin is doing one of those coast-to-coast book-signings from the end of this month. Was that a factor in any delay? If so, it seems a strange one, because the chain book-sellers must have sold shed-loads of this title in the pre-Christmas furore.

Stasio  is quite correct in those first two paragraphs. In life, as in art, the crook and the copper are to some extent in cahoots. The one keeps the other in business. The other keeps the one under some constraints. Without each other, there is no literary or social tension. Sociologists have serially noted that the characteristics needed for either match those of the opponent. Rebus is a decent sociologist, and his creator has access to and, doubtless, advice from some of the better sociological brains in Britain.

Under the Antonine Wall

Last autumn the Lady in My Life and I undertook a small pilgrimage to a modern marvel: the Falkirk Wheel. And took the short boat (that blue job entering the caisson) up the wheel, through the Rough Castle tunnel and back. The tunnel is there is avoid disturbing one of the best remaining sections of the second-century Roman earthwork that originally stretched from the Forth to the Clyde.

So I ruminate on the links and antipathies, as Stasio does, between Scotland’s two great cities. Today Edinburgh is “white-collar” (banking, insurance, government) while Glasgow retains a more “blue-collar” grittiness. Even now Edinburgh (thanks to Rankin himself, Irvine Welsh, JK Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith, the late Iain Banks) has a literary connection which outshines Glasgow (despite Bernard MacLaverty, Louise Welsh, et al.)

A Malcolmian aside

That said, I’ll defend the opening of Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning as my personal best for any policier:

quite_ugly_UK_pb_200‘Jesus fuck.’

Inspector McGregor wished there was some kind of official crime scenario checklist, just so that he could have a quick glance and confirm that he had seen it all now. He hadn’t sworn at a discovery for ages, perfecting instead a resigned, fatigued expression that said, ‘Of course. How could I have possibly expected anything less?’

The kids had both moved out now. He was at college in Bristol and she was somewhere between Bombay and Bangkok, with a backpack, a dose of the runs and some nose‐ringed English poof of a boyfriend. Amidst the unaccustomed calm and quiet, himself and the wife had remembered that they once actually used to like each other, and work had changed from being somewhere to escape to, to something he hurried home from.

He had done his bit for the force – worked hard, been dutiful, been honest, been dutifully dishonest when it was required of him; he was due his reward and very soon he would be getting it.

Islay. Quiet wee island, quiet wee polis station. No more of the junkie undead, no more teenage jellyhead stabbings, no more pissed‐up rugby fans impaling themselves on the Scott Monument, no more tweed riots in Jenners, and, best of all, no more fucking Festival. Nothing more serious to contend with than illicit stills and the odd fight over cheating with someone else’s sheep.


Christ. Who was he kidding? He just had to look at what was before him to realise that the day after he arrived, Islay would declare itself the latest independent state in the new Europe and take over Ulster’s mantle as the UK’s number one terrorist blackspot.

The varied bouquet of smells was a delightful courtesy detail. From the overture of fresh vomit whiff that greeted you at the foot of the close stairs, through the mustique of barely cold urine on the landing, to the tear‐gas, fist‐in‐face guard‐dog of guff that savaged anyone entering the flat, it just told you how much fun this case would be.

McGregor looked grimly down at his shoes and the ends of his trousers. The postman’s voluminous spew had covered the wooden floor of the doorway from wall to wall, and extended too far down the hall for him to clear it with a jump. His two‐footed splash had streaked his Docs, his ankles and the yellowing skirting board. Another six inches and he’d have made it, but he hadn’t been able to get a run at it because of the piss, which had flooded the floor on the close side of the doorway, diked off from the tide of gastric refugees by a draught excluder.

My offering in evidence that Glaswegian-spawned noir darkens anything from Auld Reekie. Corroborative evidence: try Denise Mina.

Where I differ from Stasio

As in many of the Rebus novels, the multiple plotlines don’t always tie up neatly, or even make sense. Really? I thought some loose ends were there to remind the reader that not all fiction is a neat fairy tale, and are in any case often pursued by Rankin and Rebus in a subsequent episode.

the uneasy father-­and-son bond between Rebus and Cafferty: huh? The major characters each refer consciously to the parent-child relationship. That is established, as fore-shadowing, with Malcolm Fox in Chapter One:

Standing under the shower, he considered his options. The bungalow in Oxgangs that he called home would fetch a fair price, enough to allow him to relocate. But then there was his dad to consider – Fox couldn’t move too far away, not while Mitch still had breath in his body.

Similarly Fox and Cafferty note the father/son relationships in their problems with the Starks:

Joe Stark’s wife had died young, leaving him to bring up their only child, Dennis. Fox reckoned Joe had lacked any but the most basic parenting skills. He’d been too busy extending his empire and consolidating his reputation as one of the most ruthless thugs in Glasgow gangland – which was no mean feat, considering the competition. Dennis had been trouble from his earliest days in primary school. Bullied (and maybe worse, ignored) by his father, he’d become a bully himself. It helped that he’d grown up fast, building muscle to go with his threats. In his early teens, only a wily lawyer had stopped him doing time for an attack outside a football ground.

He had used an open razor – similar to Joe’s weapon of choice in the 1970s. That interested Fox – the son imitating the father, hoping to gain his approbation. In his twenties, Dennis had served two stretches in HMP Barlinnie, which did little to curb his excesses while at the same time making him new allies.


[Cafferty] was willing to pay top dollar for up-to-date information on the Starks, father and son, plus their associates, close or otherwise. He’d already learned that they had visited certain businesses in Aberdeen and Dundee in the previous week, which backed up his theory that Dennis was being introduced to people prior to taking over from his old man.

This is the fulcrum of the novel, and where it ends:

Opening the Saab and getting in, Rebus gave Brillo’s coat a rub before starting the engine. He watched as Cafferty’s figure receded, then lifted a CD from the passenger seat and slotted it home. It had arrived first thing, mail order. The album was called The Affectionate Punch. He skipped through it to track seven and listened as Billy Mackenzie started to sing about a boy, a boy frightened, neglected, abandoned. Sons and fathers, he thought: Malcolm and Mitch Fox, Dennis and Joe Stark, Jordan Foyle and Bryan Holroyd. His phone alerted him to a text. It was from Samantha. She had sent the photo he’d asked for, the one of him and Carrie. He studied it for a moment before showing it to a quizzical Brillo; then, having turned up the volume on the stereo, he reversed out of the parking space and headed back into the city.

a soulless, spunkless middle manager: this is pulled from near the end of the story. I suggest a fuller reference changes the context:

Buttoning up his coat, Fox started walking, sticking to the paved route so as to save his shoes getting muddied. A cheap souped-up saloon car passed him, its occupants barely out of their teens. Both front windows were down so the world outside could share their taste in what they presumably thought was music. They paid Fox no heed though. He wasn’t like Rebus – he didn’t  look  like a cop. A detective he’d once investigated when in Complaints had described him as resembling ‘a soulless, spunkless middle manager from the most boring company on the planet’. Which was fine – he’d been called worse. It usually meant he was closing in on a result. And the fact that he didn’t stand out from the crowd could be useful. As far as the kids in the car were concerned, he barely existed – if they’d thought him a threat, the car would have stopped and a scene of sorts would have ensued. Instead of which, he arrived at the lock-ups without incident.

A final dither

Quite whither Rankin from here is a topic of some speculation. He has “retired” Rebus repeatedly, but keeps returning to some unfinished business — now we have Rebus and the dog Brillo as an unfinished strand.

contentCraig Cabell has considered this in Ian Rankin and Inspector Rebus — The Official Story of the Bestselling Author and his Ruthless Detective. “Official” in the sense that much of the book is taken from interviews (and now five years and at least three novels out-of-date). Rankin’s answer:

“You asked me right at the beginning of this interview: how many more books are left? Well, the time to finish the series realistically is when I haven’t got anything new to find out about Rebus, when he’s got nothing new to show me, or he becomes tedious to write about and I’ve got nothing new to say about Edinburgh through his eyes.”

Rankin told me this during my Fleshmarket Close interview. At the time I thought he was cranking himself up for a Rebus in retirement set of books but he kept assuring me that he didn’t know – never knew in fact – what the next book was going to be about until he started it. In August 2009, shortly after the proofs of The Complaints had gone off and the hardback was awaiting release, he told me that he still didn’t know what the next book would be. He was determined to have a year off: he wasn’t going to write another graphic novel (because he didn’t enjoy the experience much), he still didn’t know if he was going to continue with Siobhan, but the new character – Inspector Malcolm Fox – intrigued him and as Rankin told me in July 2009, there were enough skeletons in Rebus’s closet to warrant investigation…

Good enough prospect for me.

1 Comment

Filed under Detective fiction, Ian Rankin, New York Times, Scotland

One response to “Local rivalries

  1. Dignan

    For whatever reason, the US releases are always several months later….

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