by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #14Hardcover, 406 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2003
Read: April 19 – 21, 2018
I’m torn between quotations to open with, on the one hand, you have this one which captures the environment this novel takes place in — it’s a perfect encapsulation of the frustration of so many civilians. Particularly the ones in the town near the focal crime.
Fear: the crucial word. Most people would live their whole lives untouched by crime, yet they still feared it, and that fear was real and smothering. The police force existed to allay such fears, yet too often was shown to be fallible, powerless, on hand only after the event, clearing up the mess rather than preventing it.
On the other hand, this seems to be the perfect encapsulation of the sentiments of Rebus, Clarke, Hogan and so many (most?) of the police in this novel (and most police novels in general):
He checked the radio to see if anything bearable was being broadcast, but all he could find were rap and dance. There was a tape in the player, but it was Rory Gallagher, Jinx, and he wasn’t in the mood. Seemed to remember one of the tracks was called “The Devil Made Me Do It.” Not much of a defense these days, but plenty of others had come along in Old Nick‘s place. No such thing as an inexplicable crime, not now that there were scientists and psychologists who’d talk about genes and abuse, brain damage and peer pressure. Always a reason . . . always, it seemed, an excuse.
So the story is, an ex-SAS soldier walks in to a school, shoots three students and then kills himself. One of the students — the son of a local politician — survives. His dad sees this crime as an opportunity to get himself out of some PR trouble and some prominence — so he keeps popping up in inopportune places to grandstand and shine a negative light on the police. Which goes a long way to make a complicated situation worse for Bobby Hogan — the detective running the investigation. There’s not much to investigate, the only surviving witness has told his story, the culprit is dead — but there’s a lot of why questions floating around, Hogan’s got to try to answer some of them. Hogan knows two things: 1. His friend John Rebus was almost an SAS soldier, so he might understand the mindset of this man better than the rest, and 2. Rebus could use an excuse to get out of Edinburgh for a few days. The Army’s in town, doing what it can to shape the narrative — i.e. “this isn’t the way we train our men to be, maybe there’s something else going on.” Hogan’s having trouble getting anywhere, the press isn’t helping, and the evidence isn’t doing wonders for anyone at all.
I liked the fact that we’re dealing with Rebus’s military past again — it’s largely been untouched (at least to any real depth) since Knots & Crosses, and conversations between Rebus and Clarke show that he hasn’t talked to her about it at all. As much as the first book might have helped Rebus deal with some of what happened to him, it’s clear that there’s more t do. Hopefully, this is the start of it — at least to help him.
The more this crime is investigated, the less it looks as cut-and-dry as it was at the beginning. This was all wonderfully constructed, a strong multi-layered story that’ll keep the reader glued to the action to find out what happened (or why it happened). And it’s really not the best part of the novel — it could’ve been, easily. But no.
The reason that Rebus could use a few days away from home base is that he has a mysterious injury. One that could have a completely innocent explanation — or one that puts him at the center of a suspicious death investigation. There’s this creep who’s been stalking Clarke, threatening her. Rebus is seen at a bar with him one night, and the next day, he’s dead and Rebus is getting medical care that suggests he could have been present at the time of death. Clarke and Hogan believe him because he says he didn’t do it. Good ol’ Gill Templar isn’t sure (raising the question: who knows him best? Siobhan or Gill?), and frankly, none of Rebus’ legion of enemies in the police or press are less sure than Templar. There’s a little question about letting Siobhan fight her own battles rather than take the avuncular and/or misogynistic approach of helping her. The two get past that pretty quickly, but Clarke harbors a doubt or two about Rebus’ involvement.
Rebus, actually, wasn’t that concerned with protecting Clarke — he just used that situation to help him with another investigation. Which is typical of him. It’s this last story that’s really — in a way — the center of the whole novel. The events investigated, the motives for a lot of it, and the emotional core are all tied (at the very least) to this story. Rankin’s structuring of the novel in this way shows him at his best. And that’s really all I can say without ruining the experience for anyone (in fact, I arguably said too much).
Then there’s the last chapter == which is all I’m going to say about it — I’m torn. On the one hand, it seems to undercut a lot of the emotional weight of the climactic moments. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t believable. It’s probably more believable than the alternative. Still .. . it left me dissatisfied. On the other hand, Rankin seems to be setting us up to revisit many of these characters in the future. I bet that’ll be worth it.
It’s hard to come up with things to talk about in a series that’s 14 books-old. It’s got to be hard to come up with things to talk about with a character that’s 14 books-old. Which might be part of the reason that Rankin circled back for another look at the end of Rebus’ time with the SAS, which definitely could use another look. How he did it — and the situations the characters found themselves in regarding that case,and all the others going on — is what makes Ian Rankin the modern legend that he is. A Question of Blood is one of those books that improves, the more you think about it.