The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories by Ian Rankin, book review: A popular protagonist is back

This is a very complete collection of a much-loved character, and one can’t help but wish that the beat would go on for just that little bit longer

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The Independent Culture

This collection of short stories falls into a category marked “early Christmas presents”.

Rebus is a familiar character to many readers, well-worn and comfortable despite his brusk demeanour, and The Beat Goes On brings his life together in 29 stories, along with a wonderful introduction from Ian Rankin.

Starting from the beginning of Rebus’s career in the mid-1980s and leading up to the point of his not-quite-retired life in The Very Last Drop, it provides a new perspective on the Edinburgh cop and will broaden the appreciation of any fan – or newcomer.

The classics are all there, along with six uncollected stories, and a couple of brand new ones thrown in for good measure (The Passenger and A Three-Pint Problem). Rebus is a genuinely fun read, no matter how dark his cases become, and although some of these stories are less convoluted than others, all are filled with small yet important details of Rebus’s (and Rankin’s) Edinburgh.

It’s a deeply satisfying read and evokes the spirit of Edinburgh and Scotland in all its glory, from the miserable weather that includes a sky “the colour of chicken bones” to the wilderness of the Hermitage. Rankin seems to take pleasure in returning to Rebus, and his character comes right off the page.

A Good Hanging centres around a group of student thespians, while Monstrous Trumpet involves a missing statue and a French detective called “Cluzeau”. There is some doubt as to whether Rebus could always have been as good as he is as a more established copper, but it’s easy enough to accept that he was just born with such keen instinct. 

The way the stories have been ordered works well: each tale fits seamlessly with the next. Familiar characters gradually work their way in, such as Rebus’s enemy/alter ego Big Ger Cafferty.

Language is used sparingly – Rankin isn’t one to show off – yet the way he brings to life the oddball characters that fit into Edinburgh’s daily fabric is highly engaging.

A closing note at the end of the collection details how Rebus came to exist as a character. Like Russia to Churchill, Scotland and Edinburgh are both riddles to Rankin, “wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”,  he writes, and that is precisely how he presents them, along with Rebus himself.

It’s a beautiful way to wrap up what is, in fact, a very complete collection of a much-loved character, and one can’t help but wish that the beat would go on for just that little bit longer.