For a crime writer, success comes with its dark side. As Conan Doyle learned to his cost, your readers often become obsessively attached to your series hero, while you yourself find him or her increasingly tiresome — and limiting. Ian Rankin’s well-deserved success with the genre has largely derived from his Inspector Rebus novels set in Edinburgh. When he brought the series to an apparent end with Exit Music in 2007, his readers were curious to know what lay ahead. Last year’s Doors Open, a relatively lightweight caper novel set in Edinburgh, was no more than an expanded version of a previously published short story and clearly a way of marking time.
Now we know the answer. This year, Rankin returns with The Complaints, which may well be the first of a new series. It’s set in the unpopular department at Lothian and Borders Police headquarters that investigates complaints against the police themselves. The central character, Malcolm Fox, an inspector with ‘The Complaints’, has a dangerous and not entirely plausible tendency to take professional shortcuts.
In other words, the new format gives us the same police force, the same city, a similar police protagonist — a solitary man with a failed marriage and an uneasy relationship with his colleagues. True, there are differences — whereas Rebus is a heavy drinker, a maverick with an aura of psychological damage, Fox is a reformed alcoholic who takes the claims of friendship and family seriously; and he listens to birdsong and Classic FM on the stereo rather than rock music. So this is the mixture as before, but with a tasty new flavour and updated packaging.
The Complaints is a substantial and satisfying novel with the skilfully orchestrated narrative that Rankin does so well. Fox is assigned to a tricky case involving Jamie Breck, a fast-tracked detective sergeant suspected of paedophile activities on the internet. Simultaneously, he has to cope with a range of personal problems, notably an ailing father and a sister trapped in an abusive relationship. The sister’s partner is brutally murdered, soon after beating up the sister again. Breck investigates this case, which connects him and Fox in quite another way. The two men find a strange, guarded friendship growing between them. As usual, the novel unfolds against a sharply observed contemporary Edinburgh — the credit meltdown, a crooked property developer and traffic jams all play a part.
Dark Entries is more of a departure. It’s Ian Rankin’s first graphic novel and it features the long-established ‘occult detective’ John Constantine. (Like Sexton Blake, Constantine has attracted the talents of many writers over the years.) Here he’s is hired to investigate a reality TV show set in a haunted mansion where the paranormal seems to be taking control. The result is a superbly inventive mystery, packed with unexpected twists and sly humour, and ably complemented by Werther Dell’Edera’s spare and effective artwork. Rankin is clearly having fun with this new medium, and so are his readers. More, please.
Andrew Taylor’s latest novel is Bleeding Heart Square (Penguin).
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 17, 2009Tags: Crime, Fiction, Novel