Rebus, the socialite and a cold case of murder
Thriller: Rather be the Devil, Ian Rankin, Orion, hdbk, 354 pages, €19.99
On March 19, 1985 a young University of Edinburgh graduate called Ian Rankin, who was beginning to make a bit of a name for himself as a poet and short story writer, wrote in his diary: "It's happened. An idea for a novel that started as one situation and has blossomed into a whole plot. I've not written any of it yet, but it is all there in my head from page one to circa page 250." Almost exactly two years later, in March 1987, that fleshed-out idea was published as Knots and Crosses, the first John Rebus crime novel, number one in a series that now stretches to 21 with the publication last week of the latest instalment in the life and career of the gruff, maverick cop from Fife who delights in flouting authority, Rather be the Devil.
Now two years into retirement and loath to let go of the job that defined his life, Rebus refers to himself as a 'consulting detective', which allows him to work on dead cases and keep in contact with his former colleagues, Detective Inspectors Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox. A dinner in the Caledonian Hotel with his lover, pathologist and coroner Deb Quant, reminds him of the murder of a socialite, Maria Turquand, that had occurred there 40 years ago on a night when a famous rock star and his entourage were staying. He'd worked for a while on the case, but it had never been solved, a fact that had niggled at him ever since.
As it happens, DI Siobhan Clarke becomes involved in investigating a vicious assault on Darryl Christie, a young and thrusting crook who is scrabbling to establish himself as the top gangster in Edinburgh now that Rebus' long-time foe, crime boss Big Ger Connolly, has decided to let the reins slip a little. Clarke's investigations reveal that Christie may be involved in a major money-laundering scheme involving people who had a close association with the late Maria Turquand and her family, a coincidence that draws Rebus, to his great delight, into the picture. Rebus' long involvement with and knowledge of the shady and dangerous characters who populate the dark underbelly of Edinburgh, including Big Ger Connolly, who may be orchestrating a major comeback, are both a help and an embarrassment to mostly by-the-book policemen like Clarke and Fox.
His unorthodox and confrontational investigative methods as the case gathers pace and complexity over the next eight days produce almost as many disasters as successes, leaving Clarke and Fox ducking and weaving in trying not to stray from the righteous path as Rebus almost sabotages their case against Christie in his efforts to unmask Maria's killer.
Liberating John Rebus, former soldier and SAS officer, from the straitjacket of conventional policing was a master stroke by Rankin. As he says himself, he is now 'Rebus Unbound', free to work as he wants to without having to answer to anybody. What is also very clever is the fact that the novels happen in real time, so that all the recurring characters, from the policemen and policewomen to the movers and shakers in Edinburgh's underworld, grow and develop in natural and very interesting ways. In Rather be the Devil - the title comes from a song on both Rebus' and Rankin's favourite album of all time, John Martyn's Solid Air - Rebus has to deal with intimations of mortality, the result of a lifetime of smoking, heavy drinking and late-night junk food, and his methods of dealing with a serious medical scare are both moving and hugely funny.
Back in 1987, the first draft of the first Rebus novel saw the detective killed off in the last pages. It's young author, however, had a fortunate change of mind, a decision that has delighted millions of readers all over the world over the past 30 years and delivered a series that epitomises British crime writing at its very best.