The Black Box by Ian Rankin

I thought I’d scheduled this for yesterday, well, I’d intended to, but I typo’ed the date. So, hey, enjoy a bonus post to make up for the recent bits of silence.

The Black BookThe Black Book

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #5

Hardcover, 278 pg.
O. Penzler Books, 1994

Read: June 2 – 5, 2017


As interesting and well-written as the mystery in this novel was, as I think about the book, I have a hard time thinking about it — the non-case material dominates the book, and seems more important for the series as a whole. Which is kind of a shame — there’s a lot to be mined in this case, and we didn’t get enough of it. A famous — and infamous — local hotel burns down, and one body is recovered. This man didn’t die in the fire, but was shot dead before it started. There were so few clues left that the case had been long considered unsolved and unsolvable. Five years later, John Rebus starts reviewing the files and talking to people involved (getting himself in hot water for it). I really wanted more of it — and the people Rebus talked to about this case.

So what made this book interesting? Well, Rebus got into this case because Brian Holmes was attacked off duty one night. It’s suggested that this is because of some extra-curricular investigations he’d been running. The only thing that Rebus has to follow-up that claim is Holmes’ black notebook, full of his personal code. Rebus can almost crack one set of notes which points him at the hotel fire and the killing involved. While Holmes’ recuperates, Rebus takes it upon himself to finish the DS’ work.

We meet DC Siobahn Clarke here — Rebus’ other junior detective. She’s driven, she’s tough, she’s English, educated and careful. Most of what Rebus isn’t. She’s got a good sense of humor and duty — both of which make her one of my favorite characters in this series almost immediately (second only to Rebus).

The big thing is our meeting Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty – we’d brushed up against him in Tooth & Nail. Big Ger is possibly the biggest, baddest criminal in Edinburgh, and it seems that Rebus will go toe to toe with him a few times. He’s both a source of information (for Rebus, anyway) as well as a target for the police (including Rebus, in a couple of directions in just this book) — for both the cold case and current operations. He’s dangerous, and yet not at all — I think spending time with him in the future will be a hoot.

Lastly, Rebus’ brother is out on parole, having served a decent amount of time behind bars. More than that, he’s crashing with his brother. Family awkwardness (to put it mildly) ensues. I’m not sure he’s someone I want to spend more time with, but something tells me that Rankin has good plans for the character. Meanwhile, Clarke and Cafferty are characters I want more of right now.

A solid mystery novel — with a conclusion I didn’t see coming (to at least one of the mysteries_ — with a lot of great stuff going on at the same time. This one’s a keeper.

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4 Stars
2017 Library Love Challenge

Strip Jack by Ian Rankin

Strip JackStrip Jack

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #4

Hardcover, 206 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 1992

Read: May 3 – 4, 2017


This is the one — the book that finally sold me on the John Rebus series (I say “finally” as if it’s been a years’ long effort, not just book 4). Everything worked for me here.

Rebus is trying to track down a rare book thief, and puts as much effort into that as you’d imagine most fictional detectives putting into it. Thankfully, it doesn’t eat up so much of his time that he can’t accompany others from his station — including Chief Superintendent “Farmer” Watson — on a raid of a brothel in a pretty nice part of town. Most of the men can’t believe they’re doing this raid, Rebus is chief among them. But, an order is an order, so they suit up and go in. While there, Brian Holmes finds a pretty popular MP in a room with one of the “employees.”

This is MP is named Gregor Jack — his background is pretty similar to Rebus’ and the detective has always admired him (at least his public persona), and something just doesn’t feel right about the way things went down with the raid and Jack’s involvement (and exposure), so he starts checking in on Jack at home. There’s something strange going on with Jack’s wife, Elizabeth — she’s not at home, and Jack doesn’t know if she even knows about the headlines about the raid and ensuing controversy. Rebus finds it a bit odd that someone like him would know so little about his wife’s whereabouts, between his curiosity and interest in the MP, he starts poking around a bit — which turns out to be fortuitous later on.

The ensuing mystery is pretty good — especially when it becomes Rebus vs. the higher-ups as they narrow the list of suspects. I liked Rebus’ method this time a little more than the previous books, it’s a bit more methodical (even when he’s mostly going with his gut, there’s still thinking behind it). Could the mystery-solving — and the novel as a whole — be a bit meatier? Yeah, but it’s not to sketchy on details. I just think that the Rebus novels would be better if they were Bosch-length.

In the previous books, I thought there were a couple of passages that were so well written that they lifted the quality of the whole book. I didn’t come across anything in particular like that, not that the writing was bad, but there wasn’t anything that jumped out at me. One very nice touch — not in the language, but in the idea and how it worked — was when Rebus was interviewing one of the Jacks’ old friends in a mental hospital and the friend asks Rebus to touch the ground for him, since that’s something he doesn’t get to do any more. When Rebus does this, and when he tells the friend about it later — just perfect.

I really would’ve liked more time with Gregor Jack and his staff — I liked the interactions between Rebus and each of them, but it’d have been hard to pull off. Most of the rest of the suspect pool weren’t terribly interesting. The friend in the hospital, isn’t really a suspect (for obvious reasons), but he does give some insight into the case — he was a well-written character and I liked the way that Rankin was able to work him into the story in a couple of ways.

Holmes reminds me of Luther‘s DS Justin Ripley (although I imagine Holmes as taller — not sure there’s a reason for that) — I like the fact that he’s sticking around, I expected him to vanish after his first appearance. I don’t know if he and his girlfriend will stick around, but I’m enjoying him as an errand boy/accomplice/hindrance for Rebus. He’s not the only returning face — Gill Templer is a pretty significant factor in the off-the-clock Rebus story, which primarily centers around his growing (yet, I expect, doomed) relationship with a doctor.

Oh, I should mention that Rebus does find the book thief (with book obsessed readers like we have on this blog, you have to assure people that the books are okay), and it (naturally) has plays a role in the novel’s greater story.

This tale of the determined and dogged detective who keeps on trying, even when he has no reason to, really worked for me — clicked every one of my procedural buttons. I hope Rankin delivers more like this book.

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4 Stars
2017 Library Love Challenge

Tooth and Nail by Ian Rankin

Tooth and Nail Tooth and Nail

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #3

Paperback, 293 pg.
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1996 (first published 1992)

Read: April 14 – 15, 2017

She drives home the knife.

The moment, she knows from past experience, is a very intimate one. Her hand is gripped around the knife’s
cool handle and the thrust takes the blade into the throat up to the hilt until her hand meets the throat itself. Flesh upon flesh. Jacket first, or woollen jersey, cotton shirt or T-shirt, then flesh. Now rent. The knife is writhing, like an animal sniffing. Warm blood covering hilt and hand. (The other hand covers the mouth, stifling screams.) The moment is complete. A meeting. Touching. The body is hot, gaping, warm with blood. Seething inside, as insides become outsides. Boiling. The moment is coming to an end all too soon.

And still she feels hungry. It isn’t right, isn’t usual but she does. She removes some of the clothing; in fact, removes quite a lot of it, removes more, perhaps, than is necessary. And she does what she must do, the knife squirming again. She keeps her eyes screwed tightly shut. She does not like this part. She has never liked this part, not then, not now. But especially not then.

Clearly, this is someone who needs to be stopped. And The Powers That Be have brought John Rebus from Edinburgh to London to help the hunt for the Wolfman (yeah, those who tagged the killer with that moniker may have made some assumptions). Thanks to the events in Knots & Crosses, many (who don’t know all the details) believe that Rebus is somewhat of an expert in Serial Killers. He knows he’s not, but no one asked him — he was just told to show up. It’s not long before this case gets under Rebus’ skin and he’s no longer in London to kill a couple of days as a show of support for the local police, but he’s off to catch a killer.

George Flight is the detective who’s serving as Rebus’ contact — and is leading the investigation. Rebus notes that he’s a better policeman than he is — meticulous, detailed, going through things step by step. Which isn’t doing him a lot of good at the moment, he needs something more. Enter Rebus. By and large, Flight’s the only one that wants Rebus’ help — his superior, another detective on the case, and the press liaison are pretty united in their lack of interest in bringing in someone from “Jockland” to meddle in the crimes of the big city.

As Rebus arrives in London, another body is discovered, so he shows up at the crime scene with his luggage, from there, they head to an autopsy — rushed, no doubt given the likelihood that this is another Wolfman victim. The autopsy scene — the sights, sounds and smells — is one of the best (possibly the best) that I’ve seen along these lines. It felt real, it felt disgusting, it felt sad. Between this and the opening paragraphs (quoted above), I’m again reminded that Rankin knows what he’s doing when it comes to writing. He nails this stuff.

While he’s in town, Rebus visits his ex-wife and daughter — things go poorly there, as one would expect. Things go worse when his daughter’s boyfriend comes around. When Rebus is able to connect said boyfriend to a career criminal . . .

I’m no expert on this, but I’ve read more than a few serial killer novels, it strikes me that 1992 was still pretty early in serial killer fiction-terms, and it shows. Both in Rebus’ attempts to draw the killer out, as well as Flight’s attempts to catch him. We also get to see both detectives trying to understand the serial killer — or at least how to apprehend one. Flight’s more old-school in his approach and is pretty disdainful of Rebus’ efforts to get inside the head of a serial killer. Which is not to say that this particular killer isn’t destructive, sick and really creepy.

Rebus is spurred on to this track because of who he is — but the attractive psychologist, Lisa Frazer, who wants to help him out certainly doesn’t hurt. It could be argued by some (including some characters in the book) that Rebus is far more interested in pursuing her than the Wolfman.

Rebus mostly stumbles around, indulging his infatuation with Frazer, looking for his daughter’s boyfriend, and occasionally chatting with Flight about the case. Now eventually, enough things happened that allow Rebus to put things together and figure out the identity of the Wolfman (sorta like when Wilson made a stray comment to Dr. House that got him to make the right diagnosis). Sure, it was clever, but hard to believe.

Early on, I thought this might be the book that turned me into a Rankin fan, not just some guy reading these. It came close, but I just couldn’t totally buy the ending and the way Rebus solved the case. But man, Rankin can write. I’m not totally sold on what he’s writing, but I’m really enjoying the craft. I was hooked throughout, but that ending just didn’t work.

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3.5 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge

Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin

Hide and SeekHide and Seek

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #2

Hardcover, 272 pg.
Minotaur Books, 1991

Read: March 4, 2017


Now, this is more like it. You’ve got a seasoned detective who sees something that just doesn’t jibe — a routine O. D. that just doesn’t look right. At least to him — everyone else (including the detective who’d normally be assigned to the case) is good with the obvious answer. Not at all shockingly, there is more than meets the eye to this death.

Rebus’ ex and daughter have moved away, his brother is in jail, Gill is now seeing a DJ (who seems to be pretty popular), and Rebus has a new boss (and a promotion) — so outside of Rebus himself, there’s not a whole lot to tie the two novels together. It’s not just his coply intuition (to borrow Jesse Stone’s phrase), it’s some occult symbolism, a stolen camera, and the testimony of a near-witness that make Rebus continue to investigate. He spends time with druggies, students, male prostitutes, artists, academics, and the upper crust of local society in an effort to explain the death.

There’s something to Rankin’s prose that elevates it above most of what you find in Police Procedurals — I can’t put my finger on it, but you can feel it. The description of the corpse was fantastic, filled with those little details that will stick with me longer than your typical macabre tableau à la Thomas Harris or Val McDermid. The closing image was just as strong — ambiguous, but striking. I can’t wait to see what he does as he becomes a better writer.

Rebus isn’t good with people — family, friends, co-workers, lovers — he drinks and smokes too much, and cares more about police work than anything else. Even when he makes an effort with people (not part of a case), it just doesn’t go well at all — we’ve seen this character before, but it still works — readers just like this kind of cop.

So much of this feels (when you think back on it — or when you start to realize what he’s doing in a scene/with a character) like something you’ve seen before — maybe several times. Even by 1991 standards. But when you’re reading it, somehow , Rankin makes it feel fresh. I should note, incidentally, that a lot of what you think you’ve seen before, you maybe haven’t, if you give him enough time. He didn’t cheat with the solution, or how it was reached — but it felt like it came out of nowhere (it didn’t). That’s good enough for me.

That’s 2 down, 19 to go. Knots & Crosses felt like a character study, a good crime novel. Hide and Seek, on the other hand, feels like someone is building/introducing a series. It’s a subtle difference, but important. I’m reminded of the difference between Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript and God Save the Child. It’s only going to get better from here. I really like this character, even if I’m not doing a good job talking about him — I think that’ll change in forthcoming books. Once Rankin stops establishing the character/building the series’ foundation and starts building.Also, I look forward to getting a better understanding of Rankin’s use of the term “Calvinist.” This one was good, solid writing with a satisfying story — not dazzling, but everything you want in a procedural.

2017 Library Love Challenge

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3 Stars

Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin

Knots & CrossesKnots & Crosses

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #1

Hardcover, 256 pg.
Minotaur Books, 1987

Read: February 1 – 4, 2016

Yet there had to be clues. There had to be. Rebus drank his coffee and felt his head spin. He was feeling like a detective in a cheap thriller, and wished that he could turn to the last page and stop all his confusion, all the death and the madness and the spinning in his ears.

After 21 novels and 30 years of being in print, I finally decided to give DS John Rebus and his author Ian Rankin a shot, it looks like they might stick around for a bit. Seriously, I’ve seen the names a lot over the last few years, and despite being unimpressed with his appearance in the Face/Off collection a couple of years ago (I’m sure I’ll change my opinion once I get to know Rebus a bit), when I needed a new mystery series to sink my teeth into, this looked like a good candidate.

In Knots & Crosses we meet DS John Rebus, a former SAS officer, now a Detective Sergeant in Edinburgh. He’s scraping by, he has an ex-wife and daughter; a small, dusty apartment; stacks of books; a pretty successful brother that he really has no relationship with; a large capacity for drinking; a surly attitude; and a not-that-successful program to limit his smoking. On the whole, that sounds a lot like many other fictional detectives (police and otherwise) — but there’s something about him that doesn’t seem that cookie-cutter when you read him. Maybe it’s just Rankin’s writing, maybe there’s something else — I’m not sure yet, I’ll have a better idea in a book or two (which will also give Rankin the time to distinguish Rebus). There is one other thing that separates him, but that’s the crux of this book, so I won’t get into it.

There’s a serial killer at loose in Edinburgh, killing girls and sending little notes to Rebus, taunting him about it. Sadly, Rebus doesn’t realize that for quite some time. Whoops. Not that there’s any reason for him to have seen the link, really — the killer was really more clever than he needed to be on that front. Rebus is part of the army of police working on his case, while dealing with some personal demons of his own — hopefully, the latter doesn’t prevent him from doing his part to help with the former.

The best part of the book for me was Rankin’s writing — the book is full of great sentences. Not so much that it distracts from the characters or story, but enough that you can admire his prose while enjoying the rest. This book wasn’t intended to be the beginning of a series, and doesn’t really feel like one — it’s a character study (probably a couple of characters, really), but one that’s rich enough that Rankin could come back to Rebus and build. There’s no way that future cases will be solved the way that this one was, this isn’t a prototype for Rebus’ methods, but an introduction to the detective and his world.

I liked Rebus — well, not “liked,” really. But as a character, he’s someone I want to spend more time with. Like Harry Bosch, he doesn’t seem to be a likable person, but frequently, those are the kind of guys you like reading about. I also liked that he wasn’t some sort of super cop. At one point, he’s described as not “a very good” cop, merely “a good one” (or something quite like that, I don’t have the book on me to get the exact wording). I imagine that over another 20 novels, he’ll get better — and I look forward to seeing that growth.

I really wish I’d known what “Noughts and Crosses” was before the killer mentioned it late in the book, sending me to google. I’m not sure it would’ve improved the book much for me, but I’d have appreciated aspects more and when I should’ve. Stupid “two countries separated by the same language”-thing….

Anyway, a solid beginning to the series, and more importantly, a good read for those who like police procedurals. I’ve already got the sequel on my shelf and will be getting to it in a week or so.

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3 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge