The Naming of the Dead, by Ian Rankin

High hopes and low dives

By Frances Fyfield
Thursday 22 September 2011 03:46

The scene is Edinburgh, the city that vies for position as central character in any novel featuring the now ageing Detective Inspector John Rebus. The place is as craggy, crabby and unpredictable as Rebus himself. Both try to shrug off the legacies of history, and both remain ungovernable. A tourist visiting Edinburgh is unlikely to notice the wrinkles beneath the elegance, just as anyone meeting Rebus in a convivial mood might consider him charming. The Rebus novels challenge the reader to find out more about the maverick, and a city built for resistance. Their formula is man and city at war with self and everyone else, both capable of being beguiling as well as rude.

Then there's the topical theme: in this case, an invasion. It is ironic, according to Rebus, that Edinburgh was chosen for the G8 summit in July 2005, because the presence of world leaders attracted every anarchist in the kingdom without anyone realising how many there were on the ground already - the local population.

The chapters are named after the days of that long week when the centre of Edinburgh became a huge riot-control centre, with police and security drafted in to fend off the barbarians without and within. Rankin explores and exploits the weirdness of a city under siege, the colour, the expense, the unfairness, the opportunity provided for the underworld to flourish and the underdog to be punished in the name of protecting the privileges of a few world leaders.

Needless to say, the Chief Constable has excluded Rebus from the sensitive policing required for the occasion. He is not invited to the Castle or Gleneagles, but it does not give away the plot to say he blags his way in there somehow. This is only part of the plot, since there are other lines to follow: the death of a politician who falls from the ramparts, the discovery of a serial killer/vigilante who is polishing off rapists and leaving clues in the mysterious "Clootie Well" where people leave clothing belonging to the dead, the dilemma of DS Siobhan Clarke, whose parents are innocent protesters, and the war between apparently virtuous Councillor Trent and Cafferty, Edinburgh's answer to the Godfather.

It all finally connects since Rebus is there, with his peculiar mix of fallibility, intuition, wisecracking insults and contempt, to muddle you through hectic events. So travel from the battlements of the Castle and the champagne-slugging politicos, endure the fate of the Kenyan diplomat who strolls into a lap-dancing bar, and rest assured of orchestrated culture shock. The bombing of London gets a mention, too. The Naming of the Dead is classic Rankin, and if you're in love with the unchangeable Rebus, you'll relish it.

It's page-turning, complicated crime, with some fine vignettes containing the only convincing pathos in the book. It feels as if written on the hoof by someone running round with a microphone, collecting soundbites of humour, fury and moral angst - like Dickens on speed, highly enjoyable, but ultimately breathless.

In a recent interview Rankin said that this novel is "looking at personal responsibility; it's asking does the individual make a difference in this huge political world?" He added that "it just happens to have a murder mystery there as well, so that readers don't notice that big question". Perhaps that explains why the emotional core of this book is so difficult to find. Rebus hid it in the Clootie Well, deliberately.

Frances Fyfield's latest novel is 'The Art of Drowning' (Little, Brown)

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