Rebus is back, in a novel long, meaty and persuasive enough to make up for the years of absence. Actually, he is only part-way back — on a civilian attachment to the Edinburgh & Lothian Police, and working on cold cases. However, the retiring age has been raised, and he has applied for re-instatement. He may not succeed; the head of this small department is unlikely to recommend him, and Inspector Fox, the officer in charge of the complaints department, who has been the lead character in Rankin’s last two novels, regards him with suspicion, dislike and contempt.
To his mind, Rebus is a type of policeman who should be extinct. He doesn’t play by the book. He has suspiciously close relationships — even perhaps friendships — with criminals, notably the gangster Big Ger Cafferty, with whom, diminished and in at least semi-retirement, Rebus has a regular pub session. In short, in Fox’s eyes, Rebus is a menace and a liability. Moreover, he stinks of tobacco and alcohol; Fox himself can’t take the stuff, and is now a teetotaller.
However, you can’t keep Rebus down. A girl disappears on the A9 road between Perth and Inverness. There have been other such disappearances over a number of years. They are in the cold case files, and the mother of one of the missing girls makes contact with Rebus. He persuades his former assistant, DI Siobhan Clarke, that the resemblances between the different cases are sufficiently strong to suggest that there is a serial killer at work; for instance, photographs of a hillside have been sent from some of the girls’ mobile phones.
Thanks to Siobhan Rebus is taken temporarily back on the strength, as, I suppose, a civilian adviser — though, not surprisingly he is soon acting as if he was still a policeman — and still cutting corners, still disregarding the rules, still associating with criminals, among them the lover of the last dead girl’s mother, and the girl’s chilly brother, representative of the new generation of hi-tech gangster-businessmen.
The plot is, as usual, well worked out, though Rankin has always been more interested in character, relationships and the changing fabric of society than in police-procedural investigations. He might subscribe to the view that the plot exists only to bring in fine things — and there is no shortage of these. In any case, Rebus has always relied on flair and intuition — along with the fruits of insubordination — to solve crimes; and it is no different now. He is prepared to step outside the law to get justice done, and does so ruthlessly at the novel’s grisly climax.
In this book he is recognisably out of date, for policing has changed, investigation become more technical and the force far more concerned with doing things correctly and with public relations than it was 20 years ago. But in truth Rebus has always, like most of the greats of crime fiction, been a romantic, rather than realistic, figure. There has never been a policeman whose methods were Maigret’s. Scotland Yard doesn’t house gentleman-poets like Adam Dalgliesh. No real private eye has been Chandler’s ‘shop-soiled Galahad’, the incorruptible man walking down these means streets. Rebus is a slob and a loner and often violent. Yet Rankin has imagined him so thoroughly that we can accept that this mess of a man has a streak of cussedness which makes him indomitable; and that somehow he retains an essential integrity, expressed in his determination to get the job done and bring villains to book.
This is in a sense a less ambitious novel than some of the later Rebus ones. It doesn’t deal with social questions, like people-trafficking and illegal immigration, or with the hypocrisy and criminality of bankers. The only politics here are office politics, whereas the second Malcolm Fox novel, The Impossible Dead, had some of the supposedly great and good of Scotland engaged in murder and cover-ups.
This one really is about Rebus, and the question of how he can continue in the world into which he has survived. It may be the last verse of the song Rankin has been singing for a quarter of a century now. But I wouldn’t bank on it. I hope it isn’t. For Rankin, I suspect, Rebus is like a nagging tooth in the head, which you keep touching with your tongue, and which you know the dentist would pull. However, you’re not going there. Not yet. So I expect that Rebus will get reinstated, and then there will be work for him and more trouble for everyone — except the readers.