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

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea