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

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas