One of the joys of Ian Rankin’s Rebus detective novels – apart from their intricate plotting and on-the-money descriptions of police procedures – is the soap opera: the complex interweaving of characters we have come to know and love, or, in some cases, to dislike or even hate, and sometimes love and hate together. (Think of evildoer and Rebus associate Big Ger Cafferty, now deceased, or slick young crime boss Derek Christie.)
Foremost of these characters, of course, is hard-drinking, chain-smoking, rule-breaking John Rebus, longtime homicide detective with Edinburgh’s Lothian and Borders Police, which is about to be amalgamated with the seven other Scots regional forces. The force is in turmoil, especially the upper ranks, as jobs are done away with and redistributed.
Rebus, once retired, is back on the force working on cold crimes, busted to Detective Sergeant. He is, in fact, now outranked by his former right-hand woman, ambitious, troubled Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke, with whom he once had a brief affair, and who is trying to carve out a career for herself despite her long-time association with Rebus.
A more recent arrival in Rankin-land is Det. Insp. Malcolm Fox, of the Complaints and Conduct Department, charged with investigating crimes committed by policemen. We first met him in 2009’s The Complaints, and he began targeting Rebus in the previous Rankin novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave. (The Saints of the Shadow Bible is Rankin’s 19th Rebus novel, and his fourth with Fox.) Improbably and uncomfortably, Fox and Rebus end up working more or less together, though they only get away with it because their superiors are so distracted.
There are two cases. In the first, set in the present, Rebus and Clarke are called to the scene of a road accident. The driver is in hospital, but the two detectives begin to suspect that she might not have been the driver at all. What’s the real story? Soon enough, wealthy and famous parents are involved, and Rebus, true to form, is being told to ease off. Fat chance.
The second case is 30 years old, and Fox is the investigating officer. The team of detectives from back in the day, when Rebus was a green Detective Constable, were known as the Saints. They took an oath to each other on a battered copy of Scottish Criminal Law, which they called The Shadow Bible. These detectives would do anything to close a case against people they just knew were guilty: plant evidence, lie under oath, even murder if necessary. In the present, senior officers and justice officials are applying a lot of pressure to get a result against them. For Fox, Rebus – the only Saint still on the force – is a valuable resource.
All of this delivered in Rankin’s customary tight, quick-step prose, mostly in noir-flavoured dialogue with a full measure of smart-alecky tone. In the end, it doesn’t give too much away to say that both matters are resolved satisfactorily, and Rebus saves the day without getting into more trouble than usual. Even a subplot involving an unclosed 1989 murder comes to a conclusion, albeit one achieved well outside the lines of the law. And is that a bit of chemistry we see developing between Fox and Clarke? Tune in next time.
Jack Kirchhoff is an arts writer and editor in Toronto.