Showing posts with label Ian Rankin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ian Rankin. Show all posts

25 January 2021

Late Style



Art historians and critics are fond of talking about 'late style'. By this they don't mean the usual age- related deterioration where the painter's or sculptor's hand loses its cunning, the eyes begin to lose their focus, and, too often, the mind, ditto. No, late style is the rare and happy alternative outcome, when despite, or sometimes because of, the frailties of age, the artist experiences a burst of innovation and creativity: Rembrandt's magnificent late portraits, Titian's dark and eloquent religious works, and nearer to our own time, Monet's billboard-sized water lily paintings and Degas' radiant pastels.

Ian Rankin's newest novel, A Song for the Dark Times, has gotten me thinking about late style in detectives and detection, as we have now had three popular sleuths closing in on old age. The late Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander struggled through his last case while in the early stages of dementia. The redoubtable Vera Stanhope has had a serious heart scare. Her unenthusiastic attempts at fitness do not bode well for her future health, and I suspect only her popularity on the small screen will keep Anne Cleeves' inspector going. 

As for John Rebus, Rankin's long-time protagonist, that old copper is now retired. When A Song for the Dark Times opens, he is in the process of giving up his second floor apartment (3rd floor in US terminology) for a smaller ground floor flat. The stairs have become too much for a man suffering from


COPD, a debilitating lung disease. That and the state of his ancient Saab should ensure that he stays home with Brillo, his dog, and a stack of unsolved case files.

But literary detectives are not quite like the rest of us, a mystery is meat and drink to them, and opposition and complications are as good as advanced medicine. When his difficult daughter's partner disappears, Rebus heads for the far north of Scotland to a tiny town adjacent to what was once a WW2 holding camp for enemy aliens and later for POWs. Mystery soon turns into murder, and John Rebus is right at home.

And yet, the key difficulty remains. The old officer is not up for any great exertion, although he carries his inhaler and watches his whiskey consumption. Rankin devises an elegant solution: two parallel investigations. One involves Rebus's attempts to assist the police in the Highlands, who are polite but firm: civilian assistance is not required. 

Rebus soon finds that he is no longer a top cop with privileged access and the ability to give orders. In response, he tackles some of the less obvious lines of inquiry, interviewing the local historical group involved with the camp site and researching the magnate who owns huge tracts of land in the area.

To fill out the mystery and to give his elderly detective a breather, Rankin shifts every few chapters back to Edinburgh where Siobhan Clarke, Rebus's friend, colleague and protege, has a case involving the stabbing of a rich Saudi student. Wealth, political considerations, the presence of Inspector Malcolm Fox, her long time rival, and even an appearance by Big Ger Cafferty, long the Moriarty to Rebus's Sherlock, ensures that Siobhan has her plate full.


Both mysteries unfold with Rankin's usual dexterity, DI Siobhan Clarke shows she learned from a master, and there's a fair bit of cynical cleverness all round. What is different are the adjustments Rebus must make. He has to be patient with his distraught and frankly rather unpleasant daughter, remembering always that he was never the world's greatest dad.

He has to get used to being the recipient of orders – mostly to clear out and let the professionals work – and he has to call on assistance from Siobhan to access the information he wants. He's back to amateur status, no matter how experienced and perceptive he is, and it is interesting to watch him adjust his game plan to his reduced powers, both physical and professional, and, in so doing, acquire a fine late style.

27 February 2019

Ian Rankin's IN A HOUSE OF LIES


I came to Rebus late, The Falls or Resurrection Men (with its evocative Burke and Hare title), and then went both backwards and forwards. Not my usual, I might add, which is when I find somebody I like, start at the beginning and read the books in chronological order. Nor did I gobble 'em all up in a binge, either, I was wise enough to realize I needed to pace myself.
Then, in 2009, Rankin gave us a change-up pitch, The Complaints, not a Rebus, but a book about Internal Affairs. If you think about it, there's a certain inevitability to it, and if we surmise that Rankin is playing the long game, a further inevitability that our old pal John Rebus would attract the attention of the minders. Malcolm Fox and Rebus collide in Standing in Another Man's Grave, and both of them show up in the next four books - along with Siobhan Clarke and (you knew it was coming) Big Ger Cafferty.

In a House of Lies is really more Rebus and Clarke's book, Fox in secondary. Big Ger has a dog in the fight, as he all too often does, but this time around he doesn't actually put his thumb on the scale. We know early on who the real slimebags are, and we get enormous satisfaction watching the noose tighten. In fact, the book's real tension comes from wondering if these rotters are going to escape the snare. Very often, Rankin's stories are about people wondering if they're doing the right thing, or wondering what the right thing is. In this case, there isn't a lot of second-guessing or hand-wringing. Necks are the only things getting wrung.

Writing about The Complaints and The Impossible Dead, a couple of years ago, I said their main concern was a collision of competing integrities. "Loyalties and betrayals, absent virtues, malign intentions, misspent human capital, leaky alibis, blood feuds and blood debts." In a House of Lies is unambiguous. Moral relativism doesn't get a lot of airplay. When it comes time to settle the score, play for keeps.



25 February 2015

The Complaints


I started reading Ian Rankin's books more than a few years back, complicated and often violent puzzles, and the Edinburgh DI John Rebus a morally ambiguous character, even if on the side of the saints.

More recently, I picked up THE COMPLAINTS, released in 2009, which introduces a new and younger character, Malcolm Fox, followed by THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD, in 2011. Fox works for Internal Affairs, known colloquially as The Complaints, who investigate other cops. It's common knowledge these guys are disliked - resented the better word, outsiders who piss on their own doorstep. They find
themselves, like as not, swimming upstream, dealing with obstruction and half truths, closed ranks, hostile witnesses, and fighting chain of command, which might prefer they bury a can of worms.

Both of the first two Fox stories, THE COMPLAINTS and THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD, are very much about that proverbial can of worms. A corruption inquiry, by its nature, leads to the unhappy and unwelcome, and heads are bound to roll. Which they do. Nobody likes The Complaints proved right, and nobody thanks them for it. The dynamic in the novels isn't Us and Them, but Us and Us. Fox is a traitor to his own.


Rankin mounts a near to impenetrable tangle of loyalties and betrayals, absent virtues, malign intentions, misspent human capital, leaky alibis, blood feuds and blood debts. THE COMPLAINTS is about a frame, with Fox himself the target, and THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD turns on a cold case, unquiet graves. If there's a trick to it, Rankin doesn't show his hand. The books seem to lunge forward with the ordained gravitational pull of Doom, inexorable and final, as though agented or engineered by the very devices of wickedness.

You might wonder, why Malcolm Fox? I mean, why has Rankin picked up this new thread? Then again, Rebus hasn't been put out to pasture. The next two books, STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN'S GRAVE and SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE, draw Fox and Rebus together, although as may be expected, Fox is an adversary. I'd venture to guess it isn't that Rankin has gone stale on Rebus, rather that he's holding him up to the light, getting a fresh perspective. Fox and Rebus are something alike, both of them solitaries, both of them haunted - Rebus more so - but Fox is the more transparent and accessible. I don't know that we relate to him any better. His inflexibility gets in the way a little, Fox kind of dour (the Scots would say 'do-er,' drawing out the long vowels), not in any way humorless, but slow to get the joke. Rebus, as his name suggests, is a puzzle. You can see they'd rub each other the wrong way, Fox being too quick to take his man's measure, Rebus not one to suffer fools, or hide his impatience. And what does Fox make of Big Ger Cafferty? we might ask. All in all, a nice spin on an old tale, a collision of competing integrities. 


One other remark. Rankin's guys aren't a generic index of weaknesses - bad marriages, the worse for drink - or their strengths, either. They're well-observed and genuine, a reflected glance. They have depth, and a specific gravity. Not entirely likable, perhaps, but completely there, if not always in our comfort zone. Is this counter-intuitive? I'm not sure. Fox and Rebus are uneasy companions, with each other, by themselves, and with us. They take warming up to. But they enlist our sympathies. Obdurate, they are. Certainly not frictionless, or smooth. A little sharp and peaty to the taste, like a single malt. Slightly acrid, with a length of finish that lingers in the mouth.

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

10 September 2014

Resurrection Men


by David Edgerley Gates


Ian Rankin published his thirteenth Inspector John Rebus novel, RESURRECTION MEN, in 2002. The story is about a group of cops in a rehab facility - sent down in disgrace because of alcohol or domestic violence issues, or they've fallen afoul of Internal Affairs - but being Rankin, the book is of course about a lot more than that. The title is double-edged, a turn of phrase with a dark history.


In the early 19th century, medical schools relied on the dead bodies of executed criminals for anatomy studies. It was illegal, in that day and age, to leave your body to science. but the supply began to dry up, and it gave rise to a trade in fresh cadavers, and the graves of the newly buried were dug up by body-snatchers, who sold the dead for necropsies. They were known as Resurrection Men. 



Two of these entrepreneurs, Burke and Hare, resident in Edinburgh in late 1827, improved their market share by skipping exhumation and turning to murder. Their victims were the derelict, the sickly, women of the street - people who wouldn't be missed. Over the course of the next year, they killed at least sixteen people, and shopped their corpses to a surgeon named Knox, to use in his anatomical lectures. How much Knox knew, or suspected, is an open question, but certainly he turned a blind eye. After they were caught, Hare turned King's Evidence, in return for immunity, and Burke was hanged. His body, as it happens, was then publicly dissected at the University of Edinburgh. Knox, the doctor, was never prosecuted.


"A wretch who isn't worth a farthing while alive," Sir Walter Scott remarked, "becomes a valuable article when knocked on the head and carried to an anatomist." Scott was being ironic about economies of scale, but as far as I know, he never used this incident as material. Dickens wasn't so shy. One of
his characters in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Jerry Cruncher, is explicitly a grave-robber. And in 1884, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a story called "The Body-Snatcher," which stops just short of naming Knox as a knowing accomplice. Stevenson's DR.
JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a reimagining of the Whitechapel murders, and there's been some conflation, in books and movies, of Burke and Hare's crimes with Jack the Ripper. The serial killer, as a figure of fear, is a mid-Victorian invention, I believe. Not that somebody might not claim many victims, but that he does it for the sick thrill.


Psychopathology wasn't well-understood, in the 1800's - the term didn't even come into general use until the early 20th century. One of the narrative engines of David Morrell's gripping recent novel, MURDER AS A FINE ART, which takes place in 1854 London, is the lack of any practical forensic approach, and the inability to process, let alone inhabit, the mindset of a serial murderer. It's not simply an unknown, but unimaginable, like an empty space on an old map, which simply states: Here Be Monsters. Burke and Hare took up their trade for the easy money, but the seeming
effortlessness of the murders gives you pause. They displayed no remorse. Burke, in fact, before he went to the scaffold, asked whether Dr. Knox would give him the five pounds he was owed for his last victim, so Burke could buy a new suit of clothes to be hanged in. 

"To know my deed, 'twere best not to know myself," Macbeth says. Burke and Hare apparently avoided any kind of self-knowledge. They denied the humanity of the men and women, and at least one child, that they murdered, but did they deny their own? Neither one of them were crazy, so far as we know, although they were probably a few cards short of a full deck. They were paid five to ten pounds for each dead body they delivered. In today's numbers, between six and twelve hundred bucks. Not too shabby, if you're desecrating a grave in the wee hours, but for a capital crime? The odd thing about these guys is that they were very far from the pathology of the Ripper. There was actually nothing out of the ordinary about them. They were simply dumb enough to get caught.

Maybe that's the thing. It isn't that Burke and Hare live on in our imagination because they were criminal deviants who've evaded detection for 125 years - is the Ripper case solved? More, perhaps,
that Burke and Hare touched a popular nerve at the time, and that a writer like Dickens or Stevenson gives them shelf life. (Burke's skeleton is still on display at the Edinburgh Medical School.) No, the dread lies in the open grave. 

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

16 January 2012

Little Worlds



Although most mystery writers would give their eye teeth for a great plot and although the big selling novels of the genre are all heavily plot driven, the story lines of mysteries are not destined to linger in memory. With certain sterling exceptions- the orangutan did it in The Murders of the Rue Morgue and Roger Ackroyd was done in by the sly narrator- we simply do not remember plots.

Indeed, memory seems to decrease in inverse proportion to the intricacy and ingenuity of the story. Thus it is easy to recall that the King killed Hamlet's father and that Oedipus was seized with road rage on the way into Thebes but very difficult to remember even one of Miss Jane Marple's ventures or exactly what Robicheaux was up to in James Lee Burke's latest novel.

And yet, fans continue to ask for their favorites whether Kate Atkinson or Donna Leon or Lee Child, suggesting that while plot is necessary for the mystery, it is not in some ways the essential ingredient. Certainly what is remembered tends to be character first, with fans developing a taste for Inspector Wallender or Marshall Guarnaccia or V.I. Warshawski, detectives whose adventures are followed with pleasure, even if, in retrospect, the details of their cases remain hazy.

He or she who can create a great character rarely wants for readers. But there is another aspect of the mystery that I think is equally important, namely the setting, including not just the physical setting which may be familiar or exotic, but what might be called the tone or atmosphere of the whole. In this as in so many other aspects, the template has to be Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. True, he has a great character in Holmes and a very good one in Watson, but without that particular gaslight London mis-en-scene, I doubt the series of stories would have had their enormous appeal. Which continues: A recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement dealt with no less that six new books about Holmes and/or Doyle, plus the newest Sherlock Holmes film.


The Holmes stories were made for cold, rainy nights, because they depend so heavily on the contrast between the warm, smoky, Victorian chambers of the two friends and the raw, damp weather in the streets and out on the windswept moors. Repetition in the form of the original stories, which Doyle stuck with despite wearying of his creation, and what seems like an unending series of Holmes pastiches, have made Baker Street and the Victorian world and underworld just familiar enough. We travel there imaginatively, knowing that we will get thrills and satisfactions of a particular quality.

Not every writer has the patience to create such a little world. I, personally, disliked adding back stories for the later novels in my mystery series, and I preferred to keep Anna Peters on the move. Clearly the creation of a little world and a stock company of characters was not on my Muse's agenda.

Other writers find creating either a little world or a consistent atmosphere very satisfying. Agatha Christie dealt St. Mary Mead more than its share of corpses - and cozy writers have been mining the territory of garden fetes and parish politics and bad behavior among the gentry ever since.

Thanks chiefly to Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald, Southern California of the 1940's and 50's enjoys a similar posthumous life. Where would we be without those alcoholic gumshoes, tuxedoed gamblers, ambitious starlets, and gat-packing thugs? Not to mention the secluded bungalows and crumbling apartments, both so convenient for stashing a corpse or two, the roadhouses with sinister reputations, and the seedy digs of the leading P.I.


More recently, Ian Rankin has focused on the east of Scotland with a few forays to Glasgow, but the non-touristy side of Edinburgh is his novels' real heart. And it's a bleak, guilt ridden, hard-drinking heart at that. Further south in the UK, there is an equally distinctive feel to P.D. James's novels, particularly her earlier ones and those set up on the coast and in the fenland of England. Even when Inspector Dalgliesh plays a minor role, the novels have a reflective melancholy that owes a lot to their often bleak and desolate settings.

Alexander McCall Smith's Gaborone is lovingly recreated in each of his novels, along with Precious Ramotswe and the rest of what is now a lively stock company. James Lee Burke has done the same for New Orleans, capturing its baroque corruption and vitality. Equally distinctive is Fred Vargas's Paris, with its layers of history, its whimsy, and its toleration for the rampant eccentricity of Inspector Adamsberg's squad.

With all, the plots are clever but forgettable. What lingers in the mind are the characters and atmosphere, which Adamsberg would probably, and sensibly, define as je n'sais quoi.