Rebus – A New Agenda?

From Crimespree # 5 Feb/Mar 2005




by Richard Flannery


Rankin has always insisted that Edinburgh is the hero of his novels. Fair enough, but this long-time reader has always had a soft spot for the central character, John Rebus. I admit Rebus is difficult, often as gloomy and cheerless as the Scots climate, but there’s a certain charm in a character who doesn’t try to be likeable. Besides, Rebus needs to be tough. I suppose the novels count as police procedurals in some cataloging sense, but Rebus is definitely not a team player. He holds back information, distrusts most of his fellow officers as well as his bosses. Rebus is about getting the case solved in spite of the police organization. Author Rankin has written Rebus as a person with very little personal baggage. The (divorced) wife and daughter are mostly off in London.

There are no neighbors, dogs, buddies. Rebus has a favorite bar, the Ox, where no one bothers him unless he wants to talk. Rebus observes the city for us and the cases are mostly revealed through his (third person) eyes, but the Detective Inspector plays his cards closely even with the readers. We’re often not sure what his motives are or exactly what he’s thinking (unless it’s about his musical preferences) and we know little about his history. Rankin has been clever enough to write a mystery series in which the detective is a mystery, something certain to appeal to many mystery readers. We have to do our own Watson work.

The recent novels, RESURRECTION MEN, A QUESTION OF BLOOD , and FLESHMARKET CLOSE (FLESHMARKET ALLEY in the U.S.) tell the story of the emergence of a John Rebus who needs and wants things from other people. It’s about time for the detective to make some changes. His police career is rapidly sliding down the far side of the slope and —just as in real life— his bosses are glad to give this longstanding troublemaker as much pain as they can on his way out. For a long time Farmer Watson, his boss at St. Leonard’s, protected Rebus because Rebus got results none of his other detectives were going to get. By the opening of RESURRECTION MEN Farmer Watson is retired, St. Leonard’s is in the process of closing, and Rebus, always a man alone from our first meeting with him in KNOTS AND CROSSES is even more isolated from most of his fellow officers. Thus, the novel’s plot: Rebus is undercover ( investigating police corruption) at a police re-training course designed to give aging officers a chance to rescue what’s left of their careers before they get fired. Rebus gets there by throwing a cup of coffee at his onetime colleague and sort-of girlfriend, Gill Templar, now his boss, in front of everyone at St. Leonard’s. This little bit of theater works because Rebus’ fall from grace comes as no surprise to his fellow officers. He’s just the man for a bit of attitude adjustment.

A QUESTION OF BLOOD is author Rankin’s commentary on the current fascination with forensic sciences on the bestseller list and TV mysteries. Rebus knows pretty well what the lab reports are going to reveal about the killing, but the real question is why the murderer suddenly turned to violence, a question of motivation. Those answers may come from a study of people’s tangled family history’s, their ‘blood’ background. During the novel Rebus has to confront what his own casual neglect of a family member long ago has contributed to the mystery he’s solving. The mystery of sudden criminal violence is not going to be “solved” by blood spatter patterns OR by gun control legislation. That’s one of the many reasons to love these novels, no quick and easy explanations here.

As FLESHMARKET CLOSE opens St. Leonard’s has closed—hail and farewell– and Rebus doesn’t even have a desk at his new police station. He hardly seems to be part of organized policing in Scotland at all. Rebus is ‘superfluous to requirements’ except when it comes to breaking the case. During the case he’s less interested in getting a result–in fact the cops get the ‘wrong’ result– than he is in doing something for the victims of the crime. He’s willing to trade a chance to skewer a cop he dislikes for some favors for a hapless refugee family even though the cop has been manipulated by his long-time nemesis “Big Ger” Cafferty.

The Rankin novels, sixteen of them now, have grown both bigger and deeper in the years since KNOTS AND CROSSES. The writing remains superb, probably the best combination of dialog and observation of any mystery series written today. The portrait of Scotland and Edinburgh is now a lavish one reaching well back into the city’s history and encompassing 21st Century developments. The themes of the novels have become more serious moving from fairly conventional crime plots to political change in Scotland, gun violence, immigration. A critical change in the books has been the emergence of Siobhan Clarke (she hates “Shiv”), a younger, female Rebus. Clarke is not exactly a clone of Rebus, she’s more outgoing (at least on the surface) and far more interested in a successful police career than Rebus ever was. But she’s just as single-minded, secretive and determined and has emerged in recent books as pretty much Rebus’ equal as a detective.

Clarke and Rebus have an intriguing relationship. They have each other’s back against the rest of the cops, share information they keep from others, and are complicit in each others’ lies. The two of them, inevitably, rely on their non-communication skills to deal with each other, frequently keeping things from each other to avoid wounding the other’s pride or dignity. Rebus and Clarke are two people for whom non-disclosure is a way of life. There are signs that things are coming to a head for this doughty couple. In FLESHMARKET they are openly jealous of each other’s dates and the question is raised what kind of ‘pals’ or ‘mates’ they are. Can two stiff-necked loners work out a relationship? I haven’t a clue, but at his age Rebus is lucky to have that kind of problem.