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A welcome return, if not a wholly successful one
on 10 December 2012
There are many in Lothian and Borders Police thankful for the retirement of John Rebus. They are less happy that he is now working in a civilian capacity in the cold case unit, particularly given his tendency to spend evenings drinking with known gangsters like Morris Gerald Cafferty. Tensions bubble to the surface as Rebus begins to notice similarities between the disappearance of an Edinburgh girl, investigated by DI Siobhan Clarke, and a string of other young women who have vanished over the preceding decades. This takes Rebus into the Highlands, a long way from the comfort of Edinburgh and constantly on the verge of being sent back to the cold cases unit or even retired permanently.
There's always a reason to read Rankin. He's such an accomplished writer with caramel prose and a fantastic grasp of pace and structure. I raced to the end of Standing in Another Man's Grave just as I have every other Rebus book I've picked up.
As with every other long running series, there is a tendency for many of the tropes that make the series so familiar to become trite and stale, so it was a smart move to shake things up with the retirement of Rebus. The shift in tone works well in throwing both Rebus and the reader off kilter. Rebus is no longer just working against bureaucratic superiors but often the whole police force, to whom he now seems an outsider. Equally, the juxtaposition of dark and light -Rebus and Cafferty- no longer seems so clear cut now that the line that separated them is erased. Both are retired so whilst both still cling to their own allegiances, it's pretty clear Rebus is no longer an officer of the law and Cafferty is no longer the prince of the Edinburgh underworld.
This does throw up some problems in the novel. It was straightforward to sympathise with Rebus as the radical iconoclast in the force. Now that he is outside of it, it becomes easier to empathise with those in authority who are asked to take risks on the hunches of someone who is clearly an emotionally stunted obsessive. Despite his qualms in the quieter moments of the night, Rebus' drive to achieve justice is all consuming regardless of the damage caused to himself, friends and family.
Rankin has always distanced himself slightly from the idea of the Holmsian genius. Rebus has gut feels and makes unexpected deductions but his results are as often built on the procedure of police work (often undertaken by others, often using computers) and a degree of luck. I couldn't help feel that the resolution of this novel was too incidental to the fun Rankin was having with a newly liberated Rebus. The circumstantial evidence that Rebus gathers is -as he admits- flimsy and yet he is prepared to take a much darker path than he has in the past to validate it. It highlights the idea of Rebus as an agent for justice rather than law but also signals a shift further to grey in the character and provides a plot resolution that is less satisfying than many that Rankin has dished up.
Overall, this seems like a transitionary novel. It moves the characters much further forward than previous books and shakes up the series, promising more novelty for both writer and reader in the future. It does this, however, at the expense of the plot mechanics and, fundamentally, this is what great crime fiction relies upon.