Friday's book: Black & Blue by Ian Rankin

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Last night, in the apt surroundings of the Law Society, Ian Rankin won the coveted Gold Dagger of the Crime Writers Association for his ninth Inspector Rebus mystery, Black & Blue. Now here's one judging panel that knows how to please its patrons. "The aroma of the whisky was fine," muses Rankin's bibulous Edinburgh detective in a typical bar-propping moment, "smoky, filling nostrils and lungs." The CWA awards are sponsored by The Macallan.

Black & Blue outsmarted a strong shortlist that included widely praised novels by Stephen Dobyns and Sarah Dunant. Born in 1960, Rankin has rapidly pushed the archetypally solitary and messed-up Rebus into the premier league of fictional sleuths. Rooted in the gritty, downbeat and casually brutal ground of Scottish urban low-life, his Rebus stories share much more with the moral tangles of American noir than with the gentlemanly enquiries of the classic English whodunit. P D James's Adam Dalgleish (a Scot in surname alone) may quote poetry like the transplanted don he is; John Rebus draws his allusions from the cherished prog-rock of his youth: Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, David Bowie, Jethro Tull...

That era broods over the multi-threaded plot of Black & Blue. "Bible John" - the pious serial slayer who entered Scottish folklore in the late 1960s but was never caught - has spawned a 1990s imitator. Talk about retro-chic. Rebus sniffs out the newcomer's trail as memories of the original killer return, and a murky episode from his own past comes back to plague him. Meanwhile, a tortured corpse and a cocaine-running route leads him to the seedy clubs of boom-town Aberdeen, then onto the storm-battered oil platforms of the North Sea.

How, and where, do all these strands knit together? Rebus, with his lonely talent for "spilling out secret motives and hidden bodies", strives to light up the connections. At every turn, Glasgow gangsters, rival cops, oil barons and even a TV miscarriage-of-justice show step in to thwart him.

Rankin certainly merits his Gold Dagger for the sheer cunning of his intrigue and the morose, but oddly moving, realism of his hero's dysfunctional existence. One further twist lifts Black & Blue above the ruck: a vivid grasp of the oil boom and its transforming impact on so much Scottish - and, indirectly, British - life. Rankin depicts the Wild North with a fascinated relish that has precious few rivals in the "literary" novel. How many Selfs or McEwans could take us into the raucous frontier-town dives of Aberdeen, through the vast Shetland terminal at Sullom Voe, or onto the platforms planted in the icy waves? Yet North Sea oil is one the great, hidden themes of modern British culture: an invisible Gulf Stream that made the climate that bit warmer than it should have been, but won't endure much longer. It needs its chroniclers in fiction as well as fact. As ever, good crime writing can reach those social parts that more genteel operators dare not investigate.

Orion, pounds 8.99

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