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Fleshmarket Close, Ian Rankin
on 17 October 2004
...Fleshmarket Close/Edinburgh Fringe...
The question, at this stage in Rankin's career, is not "can he write a bad book?" but, "can he even write a lacklustre one?" The answer, unequivocally, is no. At first, I was a little nervous about this new novel, which sees Rebus investigating the stabbing of a Kurdish immigrant in a grotty underpass on an Edinburgh housing scheme called Knoxland. Partly because the "asylum-seeker issue" is so incredibly well-worn in this country, taking up more pages of newspaper-columnage than any other, probably. I was a little worried that it'd feel a little recycled, a little tired, but I was wrong to be worried. I had misplaced my faith in Rankin! Honestly, when you routinely get one novel per year (well, roughly) that is always of such quality, it's very easy to forget how good some authors are.
The issues here do not feel tired at all. Instead, what Rankin does is use his novel as a kind of melting-pot for the discussion so far, as well as adding a few snappy ingredients of his own. It serves as a level-headed, cool examination of an issue that so often gets drowned and distorted in its own hysteria.
As Rankin himself has said, it's a book about what it means to be on the edge, to be an outsider. Here, it also succeeds unquestionably. We are practically barraged with images of outsiders, of people living just on the fringe or outside the lines. Rebus himself is an outsider here: St Leonard's CID is being disbanded, its officers sent to other stations. Rebus, along with Siobhan Clarke, is placed in the unfamiliar territory of Gayfield Square, and finds himself tagging along at the edge of an investigation in which he really has no place, though no one seems to care what he's doing anyway. That no one seems to give any care what he's up to helps to build the impression that the bosses want him out. And it's a message that they aren't delivering with much subtlety: at his new station, Rebus hasn't even got a desk, and has to make do with a table by the coffee machine. Most of the action takes place outside of Edinburgh, including the case which forms Siobhan's sub-plot: she's investigating the disappearance of Banehall resident Ishbel Jardine, whose dead sister's rapist (!) has just been released from jail. Siobhan, as has become the trend, actually takes up almost as much of the book as Rebus himself. No matter; either way you've got a fascinating protagonist.
This is also a book about the many ways that people are used by others, whether willingly or not, and the abuse of power. At times, it's an angry book, and this is tempered by an even greater maturity in the writing. It was difficult to imagine it improving any more, but it has. Rankin's prose has rhythm and flow, and has even more of a "you don't realise you're reading" quality than even before. The sentences really, really gel. Rebus, too, is continuing to mature over the past four novels: he's no less angry, no less lost, but there's a kind of resigned wisdom in him lately. He's possibly less impetuous, less volatile, but he is just as sure of his actions and the justice of them. He's just as hard as ever.
Fleshmarket Close is another outstanding book in a simply outstanding run of around 8 novels. In a world where the media can no longer be relied upon, in which news is not sold on its quality or verity but on how it's delivered to us, there's an increasing validity to the argument that art is the place where you must go to find the most piercing social comment, the most thoughtful and intelligent discussions of society and issues. This book is an excellent social novel, and it's also a very brave one: it's possible to get a little tired of books which present both sides of an argument and don't even attempt to consider answers, books which highlight issues but don't try to really bite into them. Books, essentially, which sit on the fence. Rankin doesn't do that here, he jumps off it. We're clearly left with an impression of what Rankin feels is correct and what is not (though, of course, not in every case; he doesn't pretend to have all the answers; or even most of them), and it's very refreshing to see a novel seems at times to be saying that things don't have to be shades of grey all the time. Overall, it may not in the end be Rankin's best, (though the first 200 pages possibly are), but Fleshmarket Close is, down to the exceptionally brilliant final lines of its epilogue, another very fine crime novel.