Book of the week : Standing In Another Man’s Grave - Ian Rankin

A new novel by Ian Rankin is a noteworthy enough literary event. A new novel featuring his long-running and persistently rebellious Edinburgh cop, Detective Inspector John Rebus is a cause for celebration all around. Rankin, having first hinted that Exit Music (2007) would see his cantankerous cop killed off, reprieved his hero of 25 years and simply sent him into an unwelcome retirement

But suddenly, and gloriously,Rebus is back. In Standing In Another Man’s Grave he’s a civilian consultant, hired to look into the very cold cases of four young women who disappeared over a decade-long period. Nobody on the force who’s worked with Rebus before much looks forward to assisting him in his latest pursuit of odd hunches, including his younger ex-partner, Siobhan Clarke, whose career might be endangered by Rebus’ antics. Rebus’ familiar nemesis, mob boss Big Ger Cafferty, shows up in these pages to nettle and threaten the retired detective. So, too, does internal affairs investigator Malcolm Fox, about whom Rankin has already penned two post-Rebus novels

As any fan of the Beeb’s New Tricks will know, the Cold Case Unit is the sort of place where they bung the geriatric sad-sacks who’ve never had a life outside police work and can’t face retirement. Rebus still rarely sees his daughter and has, in the words of one hostile observer, “no current relationships, other than with the bottle and anyone who happened to sell tobacco”

Maybe that’s the reason he still goes along for a drink with Cafferty when he calls round once a fortnight: for that frisson of contact with Edinburgh’s underworld. It’s the mark of Rankin’s confidence with his characters that he doesn’t feel the need to explain Rebus’s motivation here, even though it is crucial to the plot – for it is Rebus’s willingness to associate with known criminals that brings him to the attention of Malcolm Fox, the head of the Lothian and Borders’ internal affairs department and the main protagonist of Rankin’s last two novels

“There’s a file on you goes all the way back to the 1970s,” Fox tells Rebus. “In fact, to call it a ‘file’ is doing it an injustice: it takes up a whole shelf.” By the time they’ve met, though, it’s already becoming clear that Rankin is moving away from the option of getting Fox to investigate one of those myriad cases in which Rebus bent the law to get a result. Slowly, those missing girl cases are starting to become interconnected – particularly after yet another girl goes missing on the A9. This time there’s a further twist: her mother’s partner is Frank Hammell, a West Lothian gangster whose own path has doubtless been crossed in the past by Cafferty, and probably violently too

The set-up is slow, although entirely necessary. Gradually, the pieces are moved into place. Whether it’s because we’ve grown accustomed to seeing police work through Fox’s eyes or because Rebus is increasingly ill at ease in this new police order of computers and clean-nosed, pushily ambitious young cops, Rebus’s return to crime-busting is distinctly low-key. Maybe he has been a bit of an anachronism for the past decade, but now it’s ­blatantly obvious

Only when the police finally realise they’re hunting a serial killer does he become anything other than an embarrassing throwback to an era when mavericks were not just tolerated but even ­occasionally admired. With the game afoot, we see a different Rebus: as ever, he is driven, obsessed, but this time with the extra edge that at any day he could be taken off the murder case and sent back to his boring job in ­Edinburgh

The case sees him haring all over Scotland, even as far north as remote Durness (“Rebus began to wonder if he’d ever been so far from a pub in his life”), in his familiar Saab-a vehicle nearly as geriatric and wounded as the retired sleuth himself As he does so Rankin muses pleasantly on Scotland’s past and present with Scottish politics and the country’s current independence movement featuring

The title  Standing in Another Man’s Grave is inspired by a song by the late Jackie Leven.  The Scottish singer/songwriter was much admired by Rankin and the two became friends when they discovered a mutual regard for the other’s work.  They toured and recorded a show together ‘Jackie Leven Said’ and were due to appear at a number of events shortly before Leven’s death in autumn 2011.  Standing in Another Man’s Grave is dedicated to his memory.

Appropriately, some of the most moving passages in the book are Rebus ’reflections on the musicians of his own age — Jackie Leven, John Martyn, Bert Jansch — who have died since we last encountered him. Even surveying his collection of old concert tickets brings on intimations of mortality: “just one more thing to be binned when he was no longer around”

So when Rebus drives through the night across Scotland to question a suspect or open up a new angle on the case, when he goes back to his old ways of behaving like a private eye who just happens to be in uniform, it is a race against time not just to catch the killer but to be “allowed” to catch the killer. We don’t need to be told this – indeed we never are – but thanks to Rankin’s genius as a crime writer, we understand it all the same. His ­actual writing style is seldom more than bluntly efficient, but in allowing his readers the space to find their own emotional clues about his characters’ motivation, Rankin once again reveals himself to be a consummate craftsman of crime

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