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Review: Crime fiction

Edinburgh without Rebus Add to ...

Of all the fiction genres, crime novels are the most circumscribed by geography: Sue Grafton in Santa Barbara, Janet Evanovich in New Jersey, Walter Mosley in Los Angeles. Ian Rankin's chosen locale is Edinburgh, which has history, atmosphere, a large enough population to produce sufficient murders, and enough history to supply the reader (and the author) with colour and intrigue.

Rankin's first series, 17 volumes based around Inspector John Rebus, CID, ended in 2007, when the idiosyncratic inspector retired at the age of 60. The Impossible Dead is the second in Rankin's new series about Detective Inspector Malcolm Fox, whose job it is to investigate complaints against the police departments of the Lothian and Borders region of southwestern Scotland (which includes Edinburgh, but also remoter and wilder rural and seaside areas).

Fox is a bureaucrat, a cop in his late 40s who has two younger assistants who man the equipment and tease him when they can. Like Rebus, he is a melancholy sort, a workaholic with few joys in life, or even pleasures. His father is in a home and his sister has seemingly insoluble problems that she regularly takes out on Fox. The Impossible Dead begins in routine: Fox and his associates must investigate what appears to be a cover-up at the police department in Kirkcaldy. Their remit is not quite clear. Just a report, or a wider investigation?

Rankin's style here is flat and his delivery of information is understated. The first few chapters read rather like a report, detailing who the investigators talk to, where they go, what they have to eat. Much of the narrative is delivered by means of dialogue, and the dialogue is routine, mostly jokes, information and small talk. Into this routine a few clues are dropped that something nefarious and dramatic is going on.

But, of course, it must be going on, otherwise there would be no book. The usual way a crime novel begins, with a body, with drama, with danger, offers the reader immediate suspense. The Impossible Dead is more like a character study and a study of place – southwestern Scotland is not incidental to the murders, though the murders are incidental to the history of southwestern Scotland.

Forgoing blood and gore is a dangerous strategy for a crime novelist, especially when he offers little else in the way of stylistic exuberance (like Evanovich or, say, Patricia Highsmith) or local colour (think Stieg Larsson). All he has then is how his investigator's mind works (à la Sherlock Holmes) and his insights into how his world is put together. There has to be a moment when the reader stops reading idly and begins turning pages to see how the story comes out. Rankin is something of a tease. For the sake of realism, he puts that moment off until nearly a third of the way into his novel. It is a photo of Fox's own long-dead cousin that sparks the narrative, a man he remembers from his childhood, handsome and friendly, with associations that the family declines to discuss.

And yet those associations have attained respectability. The Scottish National Party is in power; where they have come from and what they have done (or what has been done to them) is a matter not for investigation but for cover-up – a sentiment DI Fox cannot help being at least a little ambivalent about.

The Inspector Rebus novels were made into a television series, and The Impossible Dead reads as though it would be a better series on TV than in print – the landscapes and cityscapes that Rankin glances at in prose would be evocative on the screen. Fox himself would present a good role for a thoughtful actor, and actors would also flesh out both his assistants and his antagonists. Fox's sister, hardly more than a harridan here, could be vulnerable onscreen as well as irritating.

There is more to The Impossible Dead than meets the eye; that is its virtue. In the Rebus series, Rankin made much of his locale. In the Complaints series, he is trying to do the same thing while enlarging his territory. But there is a trap in the natural affinity of crime novels for specific locations: If the author stops seeing his world afresh and depicting it in detail, the setting fades into the background, and the unique ability of crime fiction to uncover a web of fascinating connections is lost. The problem with The Impossible Dead is that it could be taking place anywhere.

Jane Smiley is the author of many novels and works of non-fiction.

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