Westwind by Ian Rankin

Eyes in the sky…

🙂 🙂 😐

When communications with the Zephyr satellite are suddenly cut, the monitoring staff at the Binbrook listening station work frantically to restore it. If it’s down for more than a few minutes, chances are it will be lost for good. Fortunately, it kicks back in after a couple of minutes, as mysteriously as the original breakdown. One of the technicians, Martin Hepton, is puzzled – even more so when a colleague tells him that he has spotted something odd, and then before Hepton gets the chance to ask him what, disappears from the base. At the same time, there is an accident aboard a space shuttle and all the crew are killed except one – a British astronaut, Major Dreyfuss. All this is happening at a time when tensions are high already, due to the imminent pullout of American troops from their bases across Europe. Soon Hepton will find himself in danger, and to save himself will have to work out what’s going on…

This is one Ian Rankin wrote many years ago when he was just starting out. It was first published in 1990 and sank without making much impression. Now there’s a little trend happening of publishers reissuing early books of authors who have gone on to become big names. I’ve recently read a couple of early Peter Mays – one I abandoned and didn’t review, and the other I loved. So there are gems out there – we’ve all read debuts we’ve thought were great and been disappointed when they didn’t break through. Sadly, while this one isn’t terrible, it’s not very good either.

It took me a while to figure out why it wasn’t working. It’s well written as you’d expect from Rankin, and although the characters are clichéd and the technology is seriously outdated, neither of these is unusual in action thrillers. I realised it’s the timing that’s off. In thrillers, there’s always a need to keep the reader in the dark alongside the characters as they battle against the odds to discover what’s going on. But there has to be something to hold the attention while the plot gets a chance to develop – usually the reader getting to know and care about the main character – and that’s where this one is weak. For several chapters, we keep meeting new people, most of whom are so underdeveloped that I found in the later stages I had no recollection of who they were or in what context we’d met them before, and each encounter is equally mysterious, constantly adding to the confusion. It bounces around so much that it was quite a while before I was even sure that Hepton was going to be the hero of the story. By that point my interest level had already flagged.

Hepton of course becomes the target of the baddies who are determined to kill him. This baffled me a bit, since he didn’t know anything and probably wouldn’t even have started looking into it if they hadn’t started chasing him around. A rather incompetent move, I felt, to actually inspire him to become suspicious! That wasn’t their only incompetence, though – I really felt that if their assassins were this bad at killing people, then the world probably wasn’t in too much danger from them.

And I’m afraid that when we finally find out who the baddies are and what they’re up to, I found it not only lacking in credibility but unfortunately all a bit silly. It left me feeling that Rankin was more interested in the action parts of the book than in ensuring there was a solid plot beneath them.

Ian Rankin

I’ve swithered over how to rate it. I suspect if it hadn’t been Rankin, my expectations would have been lower and therefore I’d have been less disappointed in it. But then if it had been written by someone else, I also think I’d be unlikely to seek out more of the author’s work based on this outing. I’m not convinced that this is a good trend – two disappointments out of three from two of my favourite authors of all time suggests that maybe their forgotten early books should be left to rest in peace. 2½ stars in the end, but I suspect that one of them may simply be because of my affection for Rankin’s later work…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion, via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Rather be the Devil (Rebus 21) by Ian Rankin

Hail! Hail! The gang’s all here… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

While Rebus is having dinner with his long-term girlfriend, forensic pathologist Deborah Quant, in the Caledonian Hotel, he tells her of a murder that took place there years ago, when a famous rock star and his entourage were staying in the hotel – a woman who, it appeared, was probably murdered by her lover, except that the lover had an alibi. The murder was never solved and, as he tells the story, Rebus’s interest in it revives. Time for a little amateur sleuthing! Meantime, gangster Darryl Christie has been beaten up and Siobhan is on the case. The obvious suspect is Big Ger Cafferty, the older gangster whom Darryl has pushed aside, but Cafferty hints to Rebus that there’s a Russian connection. (No, fear not, Comrade Trump isn’t in it!) Malcolm Fox has been moved to the Specialist Crime Division in Gartcosh. They are quietly looking into some of Darryl’s business interests and reckon the investigation into his beating will be a good opportunity to nose around his affairs, so Malcolm is sent back through to Edinburgh to liaise with Siobhan. And so the scene is set for another full-cast outing, all the detectives and gangsters gathered together one more time.

Ian Rankin

Anyone who’s been reading my reviews for a while will know that Rebus is up there at the top of my list of favourite detectives, and Ian Rankin can really do no wrong in my eyes. As always, the plotting is great, with the various strands crossing and interconnecting. The old murder story is a traditional whodunit, where alibis and motives are key, while the gangster story allows for plenty of action and a good, believable thriller ending. There’s lots of room for the regulars to interact with each other, which is always one of the major joys of the books – tension between Siobhan and Malcolm because she’s jealous of his move to Gartcosh, concern over Rebus’s health as he undergoes some tests, and Rebus and Big Ger continuing their roles as the elder statesmen of policing and crime, running rings around the young’uns as usual.

However, in truth, I couldn’t help but notice that there are a good deal of similarities to the last book. The rivalry among Darryl, Big Ger and their Glasgow counterpart, Joe Stark, has been rumbling through a few books now, and shows no signs of coming to a conclusion. In retirement, it’s harder to create reasons for Rebus to be involved, and the excuse of Big Ger only being willing to deal with him is becoming a little worn. I hate to say it because I love the old man so much, but I think it’s time to let Rebus go and allow Siobhan and Malcolm to take over as the lead characters. Either that, or Rankin should break his own rule and take us back in time to revisit Rebus as a younger man, when he was still on the force. That’s not to suggest I didn’t enjoy this one – I did, thoroughly, and I’m sure other Rebus fans will too. But this and the last one have felt like encores, given as a treat to those who’ve watched the whole show and want a little bit more. And I think it would be better if Rebus left the stage while the audience is still applauding.

James Macpherson

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of this, narrated by James Macpherson whom some of you will remember as Chief Inspector Michael Jardine in the long-running STV series, Taggart. I’d listened to him narrate Rebus before, in the short story collection The Beat Goes On, so knew he’d be good. But actually he’s even better in this one – the length allows him to create different personalities for all the characters, and his range of Scottish accents and voices is fabulous. From posh Morningside gents to wee Glesca nyaffs, he can do them all brilliantly! He has a real understanding of the recurring characters, so his interpretation never jars. And his timing for the humour is perfect – he often made me laugh out loud. I heartily recommend his readings to any Rebus fans out there – I can’t imagine a better narrator for them, and fully intend to back track and listen to his readings of some of the older books.

For anyone coming new to the series, I’d definitely recommend starting much further back – this one depends to a large extent on familiarity with all the relationships amongst the regulars. But for existing Rebus fans, another thoroughly enjoyable book. Rankin writing and Macpherson narrating are a dream team – pure pleasure! Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible Link UK
Audible Link US

Even Dogs in the Wild (Rebus 20) by Ian Rankin

Rebus in a deerstalker?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

even dogs in the wildSiobhan Clarke has been called in to investigate the murder of David Minton, a former Lord Advocate (chief legal officer of the Scottish Government). At first, it looks like a robbery gone wrong, until a note is found on Lord Minton’s body – I’M GOING TO KILL YOU FOR WHAT YOU DID. That evening, as Siobhan and Malcolm Fox share dinner, they are told of a shooting in the city – the target Big Ger Cafferty, retired gangster and long-time Moriarty to Rebus’ Holmes. The shooter missed, and Cafferty is refusing to talk to the police about it, so Siobhan suggests bringing Rebus in on it as the one man to whom Cafferty is likely to open up. Problem is Rebus is now retired (again) – and so begins his new career as a ‘consulting detective’. Fox meantime has been seconded to a team through from Glasgow who are carrying out surveillance on a Glasgow gangster and his son, in Edinburgh looking for one of their employees who has betrayed them and run off with a truck-load of drugs.

The book gets off to a great start with a short prologue where two gangsters are in a forest to bury a body. But things don’t go quite to plan. It takes quite a long time for all the various strands of the book to come together, but as always Rankin handles the plotting with sure skill, meting out the information with perfect timing to keep the reader’s interest from flagging at any point. This book is more noir in feel than some of Rebus’ recent outings, being very much about the gangsters of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The thing I love most about Rankin is that his books and characters are set very much in the real, recognisable world of present-day Scotland, and that shows through in his treatment of the gangsters here. He portrays them as less relevant than they used to be, with so many of their old fields of activity having become either legalised – money-lenders now advertise their exorbitant interest rates on TV, and gambling has become brightly lit, family fun – or less lucrative, with the police more successful in preventing protection rackets, for instance. Much organised crime is now carried out via the darknet rather than on the streets. Cafferty and his Glasgow counterpart, Joe Stark, are rather outdated dinosaurs – still dangerous in the parts of society in which they operate, but not universally feared or admired as the old-time gangsters once were. Gun crime is shown as it truly is – extremely rare and not a major issue in Scottish society. (There was 1 – yes, one – gun murder in the whole of Scotland in 2014.) It’s very refreshing to get such a true picture, rather than the nonsense that fills so many books in the ‘Tartan Noir’ genre, most of which describe a society that is as realistic as Hobbiton, or as outdated as Dickens’ London.

Ian Rankin in Rebus favourite pub, the Oxford Bar. Photograph by Murdo Macleod
Ian Rankin in Rebus favourite pub, the Oxford Bar.
Photograph by Murdo Macleod

However, the book isn’t only about the warring gangsters. There is another strand that touches on a subject very much in the current news – the historical abuse of children in care homes. Again Rankin handles this with all his usual skill and sensitivity, showing not only how it affected the children at the time but how the after-effects of abuse can cascade down through generations. And he does it without resorting to shock horror tactics, voyeuristically salacious details or crocodile tears. As a result, the story feels both authentic and credible.

There is perhaps a little less reference to the political side of Scottish life than there has been in the more recent books, but I think this is a good reflection of post-referendum life, where the close result has somewhat left the nation feeling that it’s in political limbo. But the storyline touches on the power structures of both police and government, and especially on the abuse of power at the top.

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin

This wouldn’t be one I would necessarily recommend as a starting point for newcomers to Rebus. There are so many characters from previous books in it that I think it will work best for existing fans, who understand how the relationship between Rebus and Big Ger has developed over the years. But for me, a new Rebus is always a huge treat – Rankin is so in control of his writing and plotting that reading his books is an effortless joy. Another strong entry in the series that I’m sure fans will enjoy, and great to have Rebus back in action after the long two years since the last book. Here’s hoping his ‘consulting detective’ days are not over…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories by Ian Rankin

The Grand Old Man in shorts…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the beat goes onLast year, after one of his friends died unexpectedly at a young age, Ian Rankin announced that he’d be taking a year or two off from novel writing to have a bit of a rest. I assume this collection of short stories has been issued to fill the void that many of us Rebus fans would have felt without a new book for the winter. And, since I haven’t read any of these before, it filled that void very satisfactorily.

There are 29 stories, ranging in length from a few pages to near-novella, but with most falling into the 20-40 minutes-to-read zone, so perfect bedside table material for late-night reading. There is also an interesting essay at the end where Rankin tells the story of how Rebus came into existence, which gives us some biographical snippets into how Rankin himself became a crime writer.

Normally, when reviewing a short story collection, I find myself commenting on the variable quality of the stories, but I really can’t say that with this one. I found each of the stories, short or long, to be pretty much equally good, and while they obviously don’t have the complexity or depth of the novels, they show all Rankin’s normal talents for plotting and characterisation, and are as well written as the books. In fact, because we know the main characters so well, Rankin doesn’t have to spend much time on developing them, allowing him to pack a lot of story into a compact space. A few of them have a Christmas or New Year theme, I guess because they were originally written for newspaper or magazine Christmas specials. And a couple make reference to stories from great Edinburgh writers of the past – Muriel Spark and Arthur Conan Doyle – giving a glimpse into Rankin’s own influences.

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin

Each story is entirely consistent with the Rebus we know, but sometimes angled so that we see a new facet of his character, or get a closer look at an old one. They are spread throughout his career, with the first story being the most recently written – a prequel more or less to his latest novel Saints of the Shadow Bible, when Rebus was a new detective learning the ropes – right through to his retirement (which we now know didn’t last long). The bulk, however, are set in the earlier period, so there’s more of Brian Holmes as his sidekick than of Siobhan Clarke, who only came into the series mid-way through. I found this particularly pleasurable since it’s a long time since I’ve read any of the older books and I enjoyed the trip down memory lane with a younger Rebus. I was intrigued to realise that, although I tend to think back on the early Rebus as one of the drunken mavericks of his day who has since mellowed with age, in fact in comparison to a lot of today’s detectives he was actually both functional and professional throughout – clearly it’s the genre that’s shifted, rather than Rebus…or Rankin. I also felt there was more than a touch of William McIlvanney in the earlier stories, but that his influence seemed to fade as they went on, presumably as Rankin developed into his own equally strong style.

The stories include all kinds of mysteries, from shop-lifting to murder, and the occasional one is really more an observation of a particular aspect of Edinburgh life than a crime story. In total, they left me in no doubt that Rankin is just as much a master of the short story as the novel. I found this a completely satisfying collection, and one that I’m sure to dip in and out of many times again.

* * * * * * * *

Just for fun I tried the newish Whispersync feature for Kindle with this one – that is, that if you buy the Kindle book, you can add the Audible version at a reduced cost (or for ‘free’ if, like me, you have a bunch of Audible credits you haven’t yet used). Technically, it didn’t really sync on the Kindle Fire which was a disappointment – it meant that when switching from reading to listening I was always having to find my place. Not too much of a problem with short stories, but could be tedious in a full-length novel.

James Macpherson
James Macpherson

However, this particular Audible book is superbly narrated by James Macpherson who, you may remember, took over as the lead in Taggart after Mark McManus died. Not only is he an excellent narrator, but his voice and accent are ideally suited for the character of Rebus and as a skilled actor he also creates different personas for all the other many characters who appear in the stories. I thought it was a first rate recording, and thoroughly enjoyed splitting the book between reading and listening. It’s something I would do again – especially for short stories. A good narration can definitely add something to the original. On the audiobook version, too, the essay Rankin on Rebus is narrated by Ian Rankin himself, which made it a little bit extra-special (especially since he has a lovely voice too). I’d happily recommend the book, the audiobook or both to all Rebus fans out there, or even perhaps as an introduction for new readers to the grand old man of Tartan Noir.

Amazon UK Link
Audible on Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible on Amazon US Link

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

saints of the shadow bibleDouble jeopardy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When the ‘double jeopardy’ law is relaxed, the Solicitor General asks Malcolm Fox to reinvestigate a case from the ’80s, one involving a young DC Rebus. It had been thought at the time that the officers of Summerhall had tampered with the evidence to allow a murderer to go free – a murderer who also happened to be an informer to the head of the Summerhall team. Meantime, in the present day, Siobhan Clarke and Rebus are back working as a team. With the new rules on retirement age, Rebus has been taken back into CID but has had to take a downgrading to Detective Sergeant, meaning Siobhan now outranks him. They are called out to what looks at first like a straightforward road accident, but a couple of things about the scene make them suspect there may be more to it than that.

When I try to pin down why Rankin is head and shoulders above most crime writers, it really comes down to two things. Firstly, the quality of his writing never wavers – he knows how to tell a good story, his pacing is superb and his plots are always both complex and believable. His characterisation is second to none – Rebus and Clarke have been real people to us for years now, people we feel we know, and Fox is rapidly joining them as just as important a character. They don’t perform superhuman feats, nor does every book end with them being saved from hideous danger. There is a realism that makes us believe this is how the police really work – we’ve even seen Rebus over the years learning to toe the line as the Police Force has tightened up on mavericks and corruption in real life.

Secondly, Rankin has his finger on the political pulse of Scotland – his books always relate to the main concerns of the day, without ever obsessing about them and without ever taking a stance. In this book, there are three parts of the plot that could only be written about at this point in time – the change to ‘double jeopardy’, the reorganisation of the various regional police forces in Scotland into one national force and, most of all, the campaign for the Scottish Independence referendum. Rankin doesn’t beat us about the head with these; he just works them through the plot, as they are worked through Scottish society. So as well as telling a first-rate crime story, Rankin also reflects our society back to us – again, total realism.

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin

I admit it – Rankin always gets five stars from me. When I pick up one of his books, it’s in the comfortable knowledge that it will be great. So when I say that this one is the best of his that I’ve read in years, how can I convince you? I could tell you that we’re beginning to get a nostalgic, elegiac strain running through Rebus’ story; that we’re seeing Siobhan blossom into the fine senior officer we, like Rebus, have always known she would be; that Fox, now moving out of Complaints into CID, is learning to appreciate the basic integrity that underpins Rebus’ sometimes casual disregard for the rules. I could say that reading this book will let you understand how the City of Edinburgh is changing now it’s a political capital; how the upcoming referendum is filtering through every aspect of Scottish life; how policing methods are changing in this new millennium. Or I could just say this is a well-written enjoyable police procedural with a complex plot that will keep you guessing throughout. But, in short, what I will say is – read the book. Read the book!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link