Tag Archives: Ian Rankin

A journey into the dark side in present-day Scotland


A review of Standing in Another Man’s Grave, by Ian Rankin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Maverick detective John Rebus, recently retired, is trying to get back on the police force in Edinburgh, but not everyone is happy about that — especially a detective named Malcolm Fox, who heads up the equivalent of the department’s Internal Affairs office.

“‘The file on you,’ Fox said eventually, ‘goes back to the 1970s. In fact, to call it a file is doing it an injustice; it takes up one whole shelf.’

“‘I’ve been called into the headmaster’s office a few times,’ Rebus conceded.”

So it goes in the topsy-turvy life of Ian Rankin’s thoroughly unconventional detective. Rebus is brilliant, though he operates astride the fine line between what’s legal and what’s not, and slips over it from time to time for the sake of getting results. Not only does he close nearly all his cases, but he’s also the only person on the force who has ever managed to put away Edinburgh’s notorious crime boss, Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty.

In Standing in Another Man’s Grave, Rebus is now working as a civilian employee of the department in a unit devoted to investigating cold cases. The work is unrewarding, and Rebus sees it only as a stepping-stone to getting back into active duty again. Then along comes a chance encounter with a woman who claims to see a pattern in the disappearance over the course of a decade of a number of young women along the A9 highway leading north from Edinburgh to the coast. As Rebus looks into her story, he begins to suspect that she’s right — and, for some reason Rebus finds mysterious, he’s the first person on the force to give her the time of day. To do justice to the investigation, Rebus manages to draw his former partner, Siobhan Clarke, now a Detective Inspector, into the case. Soon other detectives pile on in the increasingly fraught investigation as it moves forward, grabbing headlines throughout Britain.

Standing in Another Man’s Grave is the 18th and most recently published of Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels. It’s also, I’ve learned, the third in a new series of books about Malcolm Fox.

This is my second venture into the work of Ian Rankin. Previously, I’d read only Doors Open, which I thoroughly disliked. (You can read my review by clicking on that title.) The dimensionality of the characters in this book compared with the overdrawn caricatures of Doors Open made it, for me, a much more satisfying read. For what it’s worth, Rankin is, reportedly, Britain’s best-selling author of crime novels.

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Around the world with detective fiction

As I followed private investigator Vish Puri and his team through the streets of Jaipur in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant (review forthcoming), it suddenly occurred to me that a fair amount of what I’ve learned about life and culture in other countries has come from my reading of detective fiction. And, given the depth of research conducted by so many of my favorite crime writers, I suspect this isn’t such a bad way to learn about the world around me.

  • Alexander McCall Smith immerses the reader in the laid-back civility of Botswana through the continuing exploits of Mma Precious Ramotswe in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series, providing a fascinating vantage-point on the only former colony in sub-Saharan Africa to have avoided military coups or civil war.
  • Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti delves into the corruption and mulish bureaucracy of Venetian society, giving a sense from the inside looking out on the impact of unending waves of tourists who invade his beautiful city.
  • In the Inspector Rebus novels of Ian Rankin, set in Edinburgh, we view the workings of politics in Scotland’s capital and the interplay of the criminal underworld with the city’s establishment — noting in the process just how different is Scottish society from English.
  • Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the creation of John Burdett, guides us through the rotten underbelly of Bangkok, with its ever-present sex for sale and police officers moonlighting as drug kingpins.
  • Racing through the streets of Moscow, Senior Investigator Arkady Renko explores crime-ridden post-Soviet Russia in Martin Cruz Smith’s excellent novels.
  • Henning Mankell’s alter ego, small-town police detective Kurt Wallender, probes the dark recesses of Swedish society, exploring the widespread racism, alcoholism, and depression.
  • Elizabeth George’s series of novels about Inspector Thomas Lynley provides a window on English society, both in London, where Lynley is based at New Scotland Yard, and in the countryside, where he and his investigative team are called so often to tackle the country’s toughest murder cases.

Every one of these series of detective novels is well worth reading for sheer enjoyment. Yet they all help illuminate the world we live in.

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Doors Open, by Ian Rankin

@@ (2 out of 5)

Consider this cast of characters: a burned-out 37-year-old retired software millionaire, a gorgeous art gallery owner with a taste for retired software millionaires, a sleazy professor of art, a divorced and self-pitying banker facing up to the emptiness of his life, a bitter young art student with an extraordinary talent for artistic mimicry, a cynical mob boss, the tattooed enforcer for a drug-running Hells’ Angels gang, and an ambitious young police inspector. Now mix and match this motley collection of heroes and misfits, inject them (at different times and in different ways) with a plan for the “perfect crime,” then shake, rattle, and roll. What have you got? Why, it’s yet another in the endless succession of caper stories that spring from the minds of crime writers and producers of B-movies.

Yes, here is Ian Rankin writing the tale of a classic heist–where the loot is second-rate Scottish artwork. Heist stories, of course, are of three varieties: the ones where the plan unravels and the bad guys are caught; the ones where the plan unravels and most of the bad guys are caught except for a couple of unnaturally handsome people who walk off together into the sunset; and the ones where the good guys really turn out to be bad guys after all and nobody gets caught. Doors Open more or less fits into one of those categories. You’ll have to read the book to find out for yourself which one. Unfortunately, it won’t be a lot of fun to do so.

Doors Open is a surprising disappointment from Ian Rankin, a Scottish writer of crime novels sometimes billed as the UK’s best-selling author. Rankin previously wrote a series of 14 novels celebrating the cranky, anti-establishment Edinburgh policeman, John Rebus, and his sidekick, Siobhan Clarke. The claim of best-seller status isn’t difficult to credit, since Rankin has written a total of 25 novels, three other books, and a slew of short stories since 1986 — and the Inspector Rebus novels, at least, are tightly written, intricately plotted, psychologically credible, and a joy to read. Sadly, Inspector Rebus appears to have slunk off over the horizon in 2008 with the publication of Exit Music. I’ll miss the curmudgeonly old guy!


ISBN-10: 0316024783

ISBN-13: 978-0316024785

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