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Review: Fiction: Stonemouth by Iain Banks

Because they're Scottish and because their names sound alike, Iain Banks and Ian Rankin are often confused with each other, though the former has created his own confusion by writing nine of his 26 novels -- the sci- fi books -- under the name Iain M Banks.

Stonemouth, which (though not classified as such) is a fairly straightforward thriller, will do nothing to clarify the general reader's Banks/Rankin uncertainty, given that all of Rankin's most popular books are thrillers, too -- 17 of his 29 novels feature the crime-solving Inspector Rebus.

There's no central detective in Stonemouth, but all the other basic mystery elements propel this tale of a young man who returns warily to the town from which he had to flee some years earlier, unsure as he makes the trip home whether the criminal family whose code he violated has decided to forgive and forget or still nurtures a lethal grudge.

This is not a new storyline and most of the key characters are familiar figures, too -- not least the crime family's alluring daughter, Ellie, whom narrator-hero Stewart was about to marry before committing a transgression that caused her frightening father and headbanger brothers to seek vengeance.

Banks, though, is a very good writer and through the engagingly fallible and jittery Stewart he conjures up a persuasive fictional town ruled by two rival families who make sure to conduct their drug-dealing and other rackets in such a low-key way that the police generally turn a blind eye to them.

However, "the trivial is punished while the gross stuff sails through unchallenged", and that applies to Stewart, whose transgression, though minor in the grand scheme of things, was so personally offensive to small-town family honour that a desire for retribution was inevitable.

How this works out makes for an engrossing and satisfying experience, though readers expecting the challenging fiction that Banks created in The Wasp Factory (1984) and The Crow Road (1992) may feel that the author is giving his hero far too easy a time of it here.

Indeed, the novel offers determinedly conventional pleasures -- a straightforward plot that has a beginning and end, an arresting sense of place, intriguing back stories, quirky minor characters, villains deserving of a comeuppance, and a hero and heroine so likeable that you fervently hope they'll triumph over their travails.

And Banks, revealing himself to be an unsuspected romantic, doesn't cheat your wishes in this sprightly and profane but endearingly old-fashioned novel.

Indo Review