Detective Inspector John Rebus has appeared in each of Ian Rankin's fourteen police procedurals. He is an updated, hip, evolving archetype of the investigator/detective/cop. He is part of a larger group that works within clear boundaries and are, generally, "do it by the book coppers," but Rebus operates best on his own terms. His manner and style are most effective when he skirts the issue of the technical law, and he relishes the challenge of not stepping too far over the line into "gray territory." Still, he usually manages to "do it" his way and inevitably ventures into the uncharted murk his fellows avoid. He concentrates on getting the job done, and when an opportunity arises that is the key to solving the crime, he has no qualms pushing against the establishment.
In A QUESTION OF BLOOD, the most recent Rebus book, he is called upon to solve a school shooting that has left three dead and one wounded. At the same time he becomes the prime suspect in the grizzly death of a lowlife criminal named Martin Fairstone, who was harassing his partner, Siobhan Clark.
One night, Rebus goes pub-crawling to find Fairstone with the intention of setting him straight about staying away from Siobhan. But, as does happen in life, the two get smashingly drunk and Fairstone invites Rebus home for a nightcap. They are going to bury the hatchet, and as far as the DI is concerned, that was all there was to the meeting. He leaves, hails a cab and falls asleep until he reaches home when he realizes that … "he'd done it again. Ended up drinking too much … [the] driver had to wake him up. Rebus [remembered] running a bath … world tilting in the darkness, shifting on its axis, pitching him forwards so his head thumped against the rim of the [tub] … waking on his knees, hands hanging over the side of the bath" having turned on only the hot water tap. "His hands were scalded by the rising water … Scalded."
At that moment he has no idea that Martin Fairstone burned to death in a grease fire a short time after Rebus left. When word gets out that Rebus is in the hospital with burns on his hands (he insists he is scalded), his superiors start to ask uncomfortable questions. He is called on the carpet and put on suspension, despite his vehement denials of any involvement in the fire. But Rebus has a fine reputation as an investigator and is requested by the DI who is working on the school shootings.
Thus, he is also allowed to be an unofficial, ad-hoc member of the team with Siobhan as his driver/assistant/partner. Once he is on the scene he is devastated to learn that one of the dead boys is the son of his cousin, a man he hasn't seen in decades. Rebus "had been thinking about families: not just his own …" but of so many people he knew --- how we lose touch, how "life" interferes, how Rebus himself replaced his family with co-workers who became close friends "producing ties that oftentimes seemed stronger than blood."
Rankin's books are set in Scotland, but their universal themes transcend geography and his adroitly depicted human relations evoke a sense of the familiar, the approachable. Readers can identify with the events and crises his characters face without the real experience of murder and violence. Rankin's books are more complex and far more arresting than many of those written by his genre mates. One of the devices he uses to humanize the folks who populate his novels is music. In an interview Rankin said, "The music is a good shorthand way to delineate character. If you want to tell the reader a lot about a character in a small space, just tell them what their musical taste is. You'll get their age, their background, whether they're gregarious or a loner."
Rankin said in a online interview that he incorporates true crimes or at least refers to them in his books because "I have made a conscious effort to use real crimes and real-life mysteries in my books. Why? Because, for Scots-based readers at least, they cause a suspension of disbelief. If a reader knows that the case I'm writing about really happened, it's easy for them to be coaxed into thinking that everything else in the book is real, too. This means that the reader becomes more involved in the story. The hook is in, as they say in the trade! I'm also fascinated by real-life unsolved crimes (and a few of the solved ones, too)."
His spare prose and everyday language allow the reader to enter the action as his characters act out their parts. Of his work Rankin says, "All my life I've made my living writing about murder, torture, and corruption. Other people go to work and deal with money, or food, or administration. I go to work and think of malice, and crime, and evil." He recognizes the dark underside that lurks beneath the skin of all of us and, in doing so, makes Rebus sympathetic to the criminal and acutely aware of his own demons. He understands how easy it is for people to hate, how those deprived of love and basic human compassion learn to take at any cost. And he makes no secret of the contempt he holds for the bureaucrats who add to the world of chaos that he and his colleagues must try to keep together.
Of the future for his attractive yet enigmatic detective, Rankin says in various interviews, "I always say that if I'd known Rebus was going to become a series character, I wouldn't have given him such an odd name (the word rebus means "picture puzzle," by the way). Rebus works in real time. In book one, he is forty and now we're up to book sixteen and he's fifty-five, and you've got to retire at sixty, so I've got a maximum of five more books left if I do a book a year. Then we'll have a parting of the ways and Siobhan might become the main character. I honestly don't know because I never think more than one book ahead. There is no game plan."
Ian Rankin may not have a specific game plan in mind at the moment, but fans and readers around the globe will certainly want him to keep John Rebus around for a long time. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes, he was inundated with pleas from every corner of the world to resurrect his famous alter ego. And he did. When one considers the enormous number of Rebus fans who know both the books and the BBC television series, Rankin could face the same kind of hue and cry. Sometimes a writer will create a character who truly does take on a life of his own --- and Rankin's Rebus is a fine example of that phenomenon.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 23, 2011