The Week in Books

Boyd Tonkin: Is the etiquette of spoiler-avoidance a crime against critical standards?

 

Spoiler alert: this column not only discloses crucial details about the denouement of Ian Rankin's latest novel. It identifies the murderer in Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap - now celebrating its 60th birthday on the West End stage. So, if you genuinely care enough, au revoir and hasta la vista.

Those of you still here might wish to ponder the curious etiquette of spoiler-avoidance. Some readers and viewers do, I know, bitterly resent the pre-emptive leaking of carefully-laid traps and twists. I first discovered the vehemence of the thwarted punter when I unwisely ran a piece that revealed the big surprise in Neil Jordan's film The Crying Game, which is of course that… No: if you haven't, watch it soon. Since then, the explosion in critical blogs and social-media commentary has, in the fast-evolving way of net culture, led to fierce protocols about the safeguarding of narrative secrecy and exposed offenders to all the ignominy of the online pillory.

I understand the rules and why people think they count. All the same, I fear that - especially in crime fiction - the routine shielding of vital information has served to inhibit open discussion and lower critical standards. And beyond the chilling effect of such Sicilian-style omerta on reviews, we should remember that - according to loftier criteria - any work's dependence on suspense and surprise might mark it as second-rate. Art at the highest level can tell the best-known stories again and still make them thrillingly new. Look at Hilary Mantel.

Crime fans will know that, with Standing in Another Man's Grave (Orion, £18.99), Ian Rankin revives Inspector Rebus. Unlike Conan Doyle with the post-Reichenbach Falls Sherlock Holmes, he doesn't have to resurrect the gritty sleuth but merely haul him out of retirement and attach him as a civilian adviser to the cold-case unit in Edinburgh. As a meditation on ageing, loneliness and the experience of seeing your solid world swept away by youth and time, the novel boasts all the bittersweet melancholy that we know that Rankin can command.

It's especially astute on new technology as an index of social change and personal redundancy. In the age of Twitter, Rebus - a vinyl veteran in a download world - finds that "everyone's a reporter these days". Even decisive clues about the location of a series of slowly-unearthed murders - amid the raw beauty of the Highland coast - come via pictures preserved on the victims' mobile phones. Spooked by a digital revolution both in the investigation of crime and its representation ("the internet's killing us," laments a journalist), Rebus gets out of the city. Along the murder-haunted A9 road, the townie cop acquires a new taste for the continuities of the landscape, "a world unchanged and unchanging".

Yet Rankin is still putting his name to police procedurals. And here Standing in Another Man's Grave either betrays, or overtakes, its genre. For the serial killer we belatedly meet has no relation to the body of the action and serves as a plot-finishing cipher. This hole in the book's heart should surely form part of any judgment. Yet other strongly written strands - above all, the Godfather-like familial rivalry between a mobster boss and his hi-tech young lieutenant - leave us hungry for more. In future, might Rankin simply keep the police but axe the procedure?

With Rankin, texture and ambience not only flesh out but even replace plot-twists. For Christie (and this was her genius), only the skeleton of suspense truly mattered. Hence the antique yarn about London cab drivers' revenge when tourists get out at the theatre where The Mousetrap plays but fail to leave a tip. With a cheery wave, the cabbie drives off while bellowing "The detective did it!"

A high-altitude Booker may kill its rival off the infant 'Literature Prize'

Robert Macfarlane's appointment as chair of the next Man Booker Prize raises the question of how the rival "Literature Prize" can ever leave the ground. Proposals for a proudly highbrow alternative to the Booker surfaced last year after the bungling populism of Stella Rimington's crew. This year, Peter Stothard restored the literary clout of the brand, as he was meant to do. Writer, critic, climber, academic, Macfarlane will keep things serious. The window for a smart new pretender seems to be closing fast.

Should Michael Gove run libraries?

Could the man (and woman) from Whitehall save our libraries? Jeanette Winterson, in a lecture for The Reading Agency, made headlines when she called for back-taxes levied on Google, Amazon et al to sustain the threatened service. We wish. Further from fiction was her idea that library funds could fall within the education budget. "Libraries and literacy cannot be separated. I don't see how this can be classed as 'leisure' nor... how we have a choice between getting our bins emptied and putting cash into libraries."

In these Gove-ish days, such a transfer would probably mean a power-grab by the centre. Worse than today's municipal mess? As it happens, we now at last have a single named government adviser on library policy: Yinnon Ezra, former head of Hampshire libraries. By all accounts, Ezra's a firm localist. Still, desperate times can call forth desperate measures.

This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of The Independent's Radar magazine

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy