Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Falls, and Resurrection Men, by Ian Rankin

It's called "Tartan Noir;" dark, modern cop novels set in Scotland. Perhaps a bit (okay, more than a bit) precious as a "genre." Fortunately, there is nothing twee about Ian Rankin's Inspector John Rebus.

I picked these up from, and in audio form they each took about 14 hours to listen all the way through. They might be better read than listened to, as the plots get pretty convoluted with numerous characters, victims, witnesses, suspects, police officers, and by-standers, and it would be nice to be able to quickly flick back to jog the memory about who some of these people are.

These two books come fairly late in the Inspector Rebus series, and by this time, Rebus is a bit of a cliche--divorced, living alone, one grown daughter who doesn't maintain contact, drinking problem, bad reputation for being a loner and slightly rogue in the department. Jasper Fforde nicely skewers this stereotype in The Well of Lost Plots, and properly so. He's a bit unconventional, plays odd wild hunches which work out against all odds, has a prickly relationship with his superiors, and a young DI who is learning to see through his gruff exterior to the wounded heart inside.

However, cliches become that because they do work, and Rebus is not a nice man, not a man with much insight into his own behavior, but still he is a decent guide to the grubby world of Edinburgh criminal investigation. These are books written by a Scot for Scots, and there are references and slang that I know I don't understand, but the books managed to keep me engaged in spite of the sheer drudgery of a police investigation.

The Falls seems the most gimmicky, in that a missing heiress is found to have been playing a sinister scavenger hunt game online, and the young DI Siobhan Clark gets caught up in following the clues which seem to be leading her to the missing girl's body. Eerily, a small doll figure in a tiny coffin also turns up, and might be related to several other instances of women who were murdered as long as 30 years before, each of which had a coffin memorial.

It's hard to write realistic modern police novels with a prankster murderer--the world as we know it is not an Agatha Christie book, with murderers determined to call attention to their crimes through clever clues--what real murderer would court discovery like that? But Rankin's invention of a computer game that may have turned deadly allows us to engage in a bit of Da Vinci Code clue solving that is unlikely but not completely unbelievable.

Interestingly, The Falls assumes that the reader is familiar with the "Arthur's Seat Coffins," a set of tiny handmade coffins containing small doll figures that were discovered on the high hill outside Edinburgh in 1836. Do they have a relationship to the more recent coffins?

Resurrection Men puts Rebus into a remedial course for unreliable older police officers. Rebus picks a fight with his superior and throws a mug of tea at her, and ends up in a 3 week course designed to resurrect his career. There are five other cops also in the class, from all over Scotland, doing the course in order to finish their careers and collect their pensions. They are given a cold case to review, in between classes, and they are required to work together to find anything that was overlooked the first time to see if they can reach some resolution now.

Before long, we find out that Rebus was asked by a superior to "go undercover" into the class and find if three of the other cops had turned crooked and stolen several million pounds from a criminal who was framed for another crime. To his consternation, the cold case they are investigating was one he was involved in, and there is some secret about his involvement that he does not want to reveal. Now he wonders if his "assignment" was itself a blind, and that he is the one being investigated.

Meanwhile, the department is investigating the murder of an art gallery owner who was killed on his front step after a gala reception. Newly promoted DS Siobhan Clark doesn't believe that the angry artist in the cells is the real killer, and she finds herself bending the rules the was Rebus does to find out the truth.

Amid the actual investigations, we see inter-city rivalries, the "right" way to investigate a case, obnoxious reporters, grieving families, random domestic violence, the different worlds inhabited by the various classes of Edinburgh society, as well as landmarks of modern Scotland. The solutions to these various cases are never very tidy, which feels true to life. There is no single criminal mastermind, but sometimes there are very deep ties between seemingly unrelated events. Sometimes bad men prosper, innocent people get hurt or die, sometimes justice can only be gotten if the police stoop to dirty tactics.

I'm intrigued, and will keep reading this series--plus, it makes me want to go see Edinburgh for myself now.

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