Ian Rankin’s Rebus is supposed to be written in real time but perhaps that has become somewhat elastic in the Edinburgh created for him. The set up for his latest – Saints of the Shadow Bible – is made possible by a raising of the retirement age in Scotland.
But even with that, Rebus would in theory be 66 this year, and it’s hard to see any police force facilitating the return of an officer of that vintage at a lesser rank, much less one who has never been shy of treading on the toes of his superiors.
Not that his legion of fans will care. Rebus is back where he belongs, and in busting him down to the rank of Sergeant, Rankin has him reporting to his old protégé, Siobahn Clarke, who he irritates as much as her subordinate as he ever did when he was her boss.
He also finds himself one of the subjects of an investigation by Malcolm Fox, Rankin’s by-the-book replacement for the old curmudgeon, who is delving into the decidedly murky past of the Saints of the novel’s title, a nickname adopted by the officers in the CID of Rebus’s first posting.
At the same time, Rebus is drawn into the investigation of a mysterious car accident, which may involve the son of a prominent politician and leader of the campaign for Scottish independence. The leader of the “no” campaign also turns up; now a successful businessman, he was the Saints’ leader as a detective inspector.
It is a complex set up, and it gets more involved as the parallel investigations proceed, but one of Rankin’s undoubted talents is his ability to manage this without ever losing the reader. The two investigations allow Rankin to explore the ever present tension between the loyalty of the police to each other, their duty to the law they uphold, and the means used to fulfil that duty.
Saints meditates on the changing nature of police work. Rebus, with his network of snouts and underworld contacts, his willingness to take liberties with the law, even to out-and-out break it, is something of a dinosaur when set against a new generation of web savvy coppers. When his rough-hewn sort have finally departed the police service, it ought to be a cleaner place, but will it be a better place?
Rankin’s sympathies aren’t hard to discern when it comes to the independence referendum which serves as the novel’s backdrop. Supporters of the “no” campaign aren’t portrayed in the most sympathetic of lights. Saints could serve as a warning for a new nation of the dangers of throwing out too much of the old, and also of the problems posed when venerable skeletons are rattled.
All this makes for a richly satisfying read, with perhaps the only disappointment being the treatment of poor Fox. A more cerebral, subtle and even potentially interesting character than Rebus, he was always going to find it hard to gain traction with the latter’s legion of fans. His being reluctantly dragged into Rebus’s world and his obvious distaste for its grubby pubs and cholesterol-filled lunchtime pies is fun to witness.
But in the presence of Rebus, Fox is diminished. As Clarke can testify, Rebus doesn’t do double acts. He is the star; everyone else is consigned to a supporting role.
Fox deserves another outing under his own steam.