FLESHMARKET ALLEY (FLESHMARKET CLOSE in Britain) is Ian Rankin's newest novel featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus and his protégé, Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke. The two are trying to find their footing and fit in with their new colleagues; their old police station had been reorganized and so Rebus and his fellow detectives were transferred to other stations. He and Clarke end up at Gayfield Square, "just off Leith Walk: a cushy number, according to some."
In an interview that appeared in The Scotsman, Rankin says, "I wanted Rebus and Siobhan to be at Gayfield Square but also working away from it ... I wanted them to feel like fish out of water, to make them feel that they too had been put into a strange new environment, a bit like an asylum-seeker; not confident about their role in this place, trying to make new friends. It's similar to a situation where you've left your own country and you're displaced." Rebus doesn't even have a desk. "There was a separate office for the Detective Sergeants, who shared with the Clerical Assistant, but no room for Siobhan or Rebus. Ah, there was the rub: Gayfield already had a DI ... no need for another." Gayfield Square "was located on the periphery of the elegant New Town [but] it certainly felt a long way from Knoxland. Further than the three factual miles. It was another culture, another country."
"Knoxland had been built ... apparently from papier mache and balsa wood. Patches of damp bloomed on its gray concrete walls. Graffiti had turned the place into 'Hard Knox.' Other embellishments warned the 'Pakis' to 'Get Out,' while a scrawl that was probably only an hour ... old bore the legend 'One Less.'" These words refer to the stabbing murder of a Kurdish newsman. This killing is clearly a race crime and it is what brought Rebus to the team hunting down the killer or killers. "Knoxland was not a popular estate. It tended to attract only the desperate and those with no choice in the matter. In the past, it had been used as a dumping ground for tenants the council found hard to house elsewhere: addicts and the unhinged. More recently, immigrants had been catapulted into its dankest, least welcoming corners. Asylum seekers, refugees. People nobody really wanted to think about or have to deal with ... the people who don't fit in, the people who are forced to play the role of outsider."
Rebus is disgusted and angered when he observes a raid by the immigration "police," one of whom says, "Soon as they see us, they'll start running. The saving grace is, there's nowhere for them to run to." They were near the shore and Rebus asked, "So what's happening then? Boats bringing illegals ashore?" The leader replies, "Picking cockles. The gangs ... use immigrants and asylum seekers, pay them a pittance ... [then] sell the cockles to restaurants; some of them probably go overseas..." Rebus "walked on to the beach, he saw that some of the workers were young women. A few were sobbing. They all looked Chinese ... they don't want to be sent home ... [thus] gang masters have a supply for every possible demand ... [they are] turning human beings into something you can buy and sell." Rebus is frustrated, saddened and enraged by the scene before him; he yearns to do his duty as a policeman and a human being, or he feels that he will live in odium in the history of his life and work.
While this is going on, Siobhan is drawn back to a tragic case by the parents of a rape victim who had committed suicide three years ago. The rapist was a neighborhood boy who was found guilty and sent to prison for only three years. Now he is back on the streets where he is ready for trouble and no one trusts him. But it wasn't because Donny Cruikshank was free that they needed to see Clarke. They tracked her down because their younger daughter has gone missing. They are terrified and need her help. She reluctantly agrees to set about trying to find the girl. This takes her down into the underbelly of her new territory where she meets the dregs of that society. Eventually she and Rebus find their cases interweaving --- and, being outsiders, they are depending on each other more than ever.
In an interview in January Magazine (2000), Rankin talks about his character: "Rebus gets almost nothing right and if he gets it right, it's for all the wrong reasons and he feels guilty about it. Yet Rebus wouldn't be the character that he is without those traits. He's a rich, wonderfully drawn, but very flawed figure. And I think it's the flaws that people like about him." The article goes on to say, "What makes Rankin's Rebus tales so appealing is their distinctly unappealing main protagonist. John Rebus is cynical, antisocial and full of barely repressed anger, a cop who harbors animosities and makes terrible blunders out of impatience. Yet he is also an attentive observer and a relentless investigator who eventually manages to restore order to the frequent disorder that rules Edinburgh's medieval-flavored streets." Says Rankin, "I wrote the first Rebus novel because I wanted to write about contemporary Edinburgh. I [wanted] to explain Edinburgh to myself, and later on, once I was confident about my abilities, I decided to try explaining Scotland to the world (and to people living in Scotland, too)." And now, with this newest addition to the series, he is still true to that original vision. He has expanded the geographic boundaries of his earlier books and places a tired and dejected, but more introspective Rebus, where he could be thinking about retiring.
That said, FLESHMARKET ALLEY is most assuredly Rankin's most political novel and he provokes readers to at least think about the darker side of the world we all inhabit, which, as it gets "smaller," is rife with racism, bigotry, slave labor, the smuggling of human beings, and the clever ways these poor souls are used as mules for drug dealers. In this novel they are referred to as "asylum seekers" but are housed in a former prison under the most horrendous circumstances and barely livable conditions. Rankin is speaking out about "white" Scotland and the darker skinned people who are knocking on her door. In FLESHMARKET ALLEY he makes the point that up until the time of this story Edinburgh had not had a race killing. But by slashing open the shroud that has covered one of the ugliest crimes against humanity, he transcends the "crime novel" genre to place it where he always believed it belonged --- in the literary section.
By the time the novel ends, Rebus is very tired and has no illusions about his position on the force --- the powers-that-be want him gone. At a time when he thought he had seen it all, he is thrust into another case where people do terrible things to each other. Rankin has said that he thinks perhaps he can manage two more novels in this series. Readers can only hope that the creator of John Rebus will follow his muse and allow his character to live on to face more crimes against society. This is a very serious, well-plotted, well-written, and timely book. And it is certainly a keeper!
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 22, 2011