Ian Rankin has been writing police procedurals featuring his alter ego, John Rebus, for 20 years. Both the writer and the character have grown as they've lived through the life changes that time brings. "Often I am not sure where I end and he begins," said Rankin in an interview. In THE NAMING OF THE DEAD, Rankin's latest Rebus novel, he limns the policeman with a little twist. An aging Rebus is tired, frustrated and more introspective than in any of the previous installments.
Rebus came to law enforcement with only one goal: to stop crimes when possible, to seek justice and to always "do it his way." He was and remains a rogue who is not afraid to bend the rules. This drives his superiors to distraction, especially when the inspector is defying them. He is not above strong-arming suspects or using reliable snitches --- some of whom have been reprised more than once in the series, regardless of their pedigree --- like gangster Morris Gerald Cafferty. Because Rebus never played politics in order to earn promotions, this means that (late in his career) he has nothing to lose. His colleagues learned early on to give him a wide birth, and while acknowledging his brilliant detective work, some of them openly resent him.
Then along came Siobhan Clarke, a rookie who was immediately impressed by the work Rebus does. She was warned over and over not to get too close to him, because the powers-that-be were afraid she would learn his bad habits and hence become "tainted." She didn't listen. The two gravitated toward each other and built a trust that sees them through the darkness they face in their work. They are close friends and grateful that they can confide in one another. They live close by and share a passion for music, a theme reprised in each novel.
Rebus drinks --- sometimes too much, at other times much too much. He lives alone and is rooted to his chair, usually with a bottle of "anything" to get through the night. But his alcoholism doesn't appear to hamper his work. "Rebus paused for a moment…and wondered why his blood was coursing. Answer: he was working. Old-fashioned, dogged police work --- almost as good as a vacation. But then he noticed that his final destination was another pub."
THE NAMING OF THE DEAD opens with the funeral of Rebus's brother, from which he cannot wait to escape. With perfect timing Siobhan reaches him on his cell and tells him to meet her at "Clootie Well," the site of a strange ménage of "offerings" in remembrance of the dead. She has found the jacket of a recent Edinburgh murder victim. Not far from there is "Gleneagles…where the G8 [meeting] control center is." This conference is comprised of international leaders, including President Bush, and has brought law enforcement out in droves. But, despite the security measures and number of delegates, a man falls (is pushed?) to his death from the turret of the castle, on the grounds of the hotel. Rebus is forced to engage in a turf war in order to find the truth.
In addition, both legitimate protesters and those on the side of lunacy are expected to make their various presences known. Some strange characters emerge from the crowd, as do former hippie types like Siobhan's parents who find themselves in the middle of a melee. They have made friends with an odd young woman who seems to float like a ghost in and out of focus. From here the novel becomes complicated --- more political, philosophical, a commentary on family relationships, memories, loss and "lives well lived." But all the subplots are handled with finesse and in Rankin's able hands are pulled together into a satisfying whole.
Ian Rankin's books are tightly plotted and populated with well-drawn characters, some familiar from previous outings and others new on the scene. By the end, readers will agree that this is one of the best books the author has written. They may also wonder if Rebus is ready to "just walk away from his job." Can Rankin eliminate him and perhaps promote Siobhan Clarke to take his place? Or if Rebus is "put out to pasture" he certainly could continue to work with his protégé "behind the scenes." One can only hope that Rankin finds that Rebus is too important a creation to give up his place in the Edinburgh constabulary and fade away.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 12, 2011