Black and Blue by Ian Rankin

Black and BlueBlack and Blue

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #8

Hardcover, 391 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 1997

Read: September 4 – 5, 2017


I wasn’t sure if I should open with:

He went into the toilets again, just to steady his breathing and look at himself in the mirror. He tried to relax his jaw muscles. In the past, he’d have been reaching for the quarter-bottle of whisky in his pocket. But tonight there was no quarter-bottle, no Dutch courage. Which meant for once he’d be relying on the real thing.

or:

…Rebus sat on a char in the interview room, watching his hands shaking.
‘You OK?’ Jack asked.
‘Know what, Jack? You’re like a broken record.’
‘Know what, John? You’re always needing it asked.’

Either one of those works to sum up Rebus’ frame of mind in the latter half of this book (and that’s largely because things had gotten worse for him by that point). Not that things were ever going his way in this book.

Following his gutsy political moves in the last book he’s been assigned to the worst police station in Edinburgh and a case he worked early in his career as a Detective with his mentor has come under increased scrutiny thanks to some media attention, and an underdog convicted of that crime who is able to cast some doubt on the original investigation. Meanwhile, a serial killer from the late 60s (who remains uncaptured) has inspired a copycat. Rebus (like every detective in Scotland, it seems) is on the fringes of this investigation. Oh, yeah, and there’s an unrelated suspicious death that Rebus needs to investigate.

Four cases, with more in common than anyone expects until the most tenacious cop east of Harry Bosch starts doing his thing. He starts following threads that take him far from his desk and home — Glasgow and eventually Aberdeen — and the oil platforms north. While dodging the press (more persistent that he’s used to) superior officers and an internal investigation, Rebus moves around the country picking at clues and hunches while getting under the skin of criminals, cops, oil company executives, and one serial killer.

There are so many police officers running around this book, some we know, some we don’t. Siobhan Clarke has a small, but pivotal role to play. Brian Holmes is around helping Rebus unofficially, while things with Nell are at their worst. Jack Morton, Rebus’ old drinking pal plays a significant role in this novel — he’s clean and sober now, and is convinced that’s what Rebus needs to do, too. Gil Templar needs Rebus’ help, very unofficially. There are new detectives and from Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh for readers and Rebus to meet — the main thing they all seem to have in common is that they don’t want Rebus mucking around in their cities.

I don’t know if I’ve seen Rebus more self-destructive. He’s drinking more than normal (which is saying something) and seems to care less than ever about what his superiors think of him (which is also saying something). Some of his wry sense of humor remains — almost entirely buried under cynicism. Rebus has had doubts about what he and his mentor did years ago, and the renewed attention isn’t helping his sense of guilt. He is far more interested in the serial killer cases than he ought to be professionally, it’s become a habit that threatens to distract him from his actual duties. His personal demons are almost as much of an antagonist than anyone he could possibly arrest in Black and Blue. Yet, he investigates in the same way he always does — and the way he wraps up most of the cases carry his signature style.

Black and Blue is intense, it is ambitious — for most of the book, it’d be easy to see this as being the end of the road for Rebus (if I wasn’t fully aware that 13 other novels had been published with at least one more announced) — not that you’re all that worried about him living through the end, you’re more worried that he’ll be unemployed by the end. It’s one of those novels that makes you want to ignore obligations, work and family — none of which can be as interesting or pressing as the book. You could cut out half the murders from this novel and it’d still be a winner, including all of them makes this something more than that.

I went into this one with a mix of trepidation and anticipation — I’ve heard that this was where the series took a turn for the better. I recently heard an interview with Rankin where he described it that way — sales, awards, critical acclaim, all came with this book. So I was worried that I wouldn’t see what so many had before — but was excited to try. This one lives up to expectations, as high as they might be. Just a stunning work. I honestly don’t know how Rankin will top this — I’m not sure how easy it’ll be to equal it.

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5 Stars
2017 Library Love Challenge

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Let it Bleed by Ian Rankin

Let it BleedLet it Bleed

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #7

Hardcover, 287 pg.
Simon & Schuster, 1996

Read: August 9 – 10, 2017

He stood there shivering after the warmth of the pub and his car. He was a few yards from where the boys had jumped. The area was cordoned off with metal barriers, anchored by sandbags. Two yellow metal lamps marked off the danger area. Someone had climbed over the barriers and laid a small wreath next to the broken rail, weighing it down with a rock so it wouldn’t be blown away. He looked up at the nearest of the two vast supports, red lights blinking at its summit as a warning to aircraft. He didn’t really feel very much, except a bit lonely and sorry for himself. The Forth was down there, as judgmental as Pilate. It was funny the things that could kill you: water, a ship’s hull, steel pellets from a plastic case. It was funny that some people actually chose to die.

“I could never do it,” Rebus said out loud. “I couldn’t kill myself.”

Which didn’t mean he hadn’t thought of it. It was funny the things you thought about some nights. It was all so funny, he felt a lump forming in his throat. It’s only the drink, he thought. It’s the drink makes me maudlin. It’s only the drink.

Yeah, right.

Before we get to this moment of self-deception (or self-mockery, it could go either way with his sense of humor), we’re treated to what’s quite possibly the most action-packed few pages in the series thus far — more happens in the first 6 pages of this novel than can happen in chapters of Rebus novels. Two suspected kidnappers are leading the police on a high-speed chase, and no one’s relishing it more than Chief Inspector Frank Lauderdale. No one’s hating it more than Inspector John Rebus. Things go really bad from there, but not in the way that anyone expects (least of all the reader, as jaded as we might be from too many crime novels).

While the police are still trying to sort out what exactly happened there, a man walks into a (poorly attended) public meeting with a Councilman and shoots himself in front of the Councilman. Once Rebus visits the widow, something starts bugging him. There’s just something wrong with that suicide (more than just what has to be wrong to lead to a suicide). Rebus starts asking some questions. Before he realizes it, he’s investigating two incidents of suicide connected to two Councilmen.

And then pressure comes down on Rebus to stop. Which works about as well as you’d think. He’s “encouraged” to take a few days of leave, which he uses to dive in without restraints to get his answers. This series as dabbled in political intrigue, power brokering and the like before, Let it Bleed takes it up a notch. What can happen to Rebus if he falters — or what can happen to him if he makes all the right people happy — shows that he’s in a whole other league now.

And then after all the action at the beginning of the novel, Rankin gives us an incredibly talky ending. And it works. Not many novels about police officers or detectives end with as much dialogue, as many meetings, as this does, but it’s entirely satisfying. No one’ll be sitting there for the last couple of chapters just wishing for a car chase, a gun fight, or anything like that. Rebus being smarter, wilier, and unwilling to bend is what makes this ending not only inevitable, but just what the reader needs.

There are a lot of criminals in this novel, but most of them aren’t your typical mystery novel “bad guys.” They’re guys who take advantage of the system, manipulate the system, and then try to protect their assets (that last one is the most problematic). There are textbook villains — and not all of them pay for it — but with Rebus around, you know that some justice will be meted out.

Our favorites are back — so is Patience — Rebus’ daughter’s back in Edinburgh, on her own now. Siobhan Clarke, Farmer Watson, Gill Templer, and Brian Holmes all are involved. Clarke is the most interesting, yet again, her determinism and ability to stay (pretty much) in line with her superiors while helping Rebus make her a fun character to spend time with. She’s more involved in these cases than she has been in the past — and it’s good to see Rebus having someone allied with him. Thankfully, she’s a good police officer, too. Because, honestly, Rebus is a horrible police detective. He’s just too much of a lone wolf, too intuitive, not the kind of detective you want building a case for you. With Templer, Farmer and Clarke around, at least he’s got some good, capable help.

A gripping, tense, intriguing, and frequently funny, novel. Let it Bleed is just a great book. This series has been growing on me, little by little for seven books now, that’s pretty clear. Let it Bleed is above and beyond the best of the bunch, and I am looking forward to what’s coming up.

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4 1/2 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge

Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin

Mortal CausesMortal Causes

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #6
Hardcover, 310 pg.
Minotaur Books, 1994
Read: July 15 – 18, 2017

When he’d washed his eyes last night, it had been like washing behind them as well. Always it came to this, he tried to do things by the books and ended up cooking them instead. It was easier, that was all. Where would the crime detection rates be without a few shortcuts?

Before Rebus gets to his shortcuts, he’s called to investigate a homicide. A particularly grisly one, reminiscent of some that Rebus saw in Northern Ireland when he was serving there.

It’s his familiarity with that execution that gets him loaned to a special squad also investigating the homicide, especially as it seems tied into some gun smuggling. Rebus isn’t pleased at all to be the new guy — much less, the temporary new guy — on a team, as much as he seems to appreciate some of the individuals on the team (while others make him think more fondly of Chief Inspector Lauderdale). The investigation takes him to Northern Ireland to collect some intelligence, to a dangerous neighborhood, and he brushes up against an American who’s funneling guns of all kinds to (and through) Edinburgh.

In the midst of all of this, Rebus has some drama in his personal life — nothing involving his tenants or brother, but things with Patience Aitken aren’t going as smoothly as one might want (are they ever?) — and there’s another woman who has Rebus in her sights (the guy isn’t a catch, from what I can tell — how does this happen so regularly?).

Throw in an appearance by Big Ger Cafferty while the bodies are piling up and you’ve got yourself a story.

I’m not sure why I don’t have much to say about this one. Maybe because we live on this side of the Good Friday Agreement? But that doesn’t seem to ring true. Rebus is Rebus, Clarke is Clarke, Holmes is Holmes, Farmer Watson is off the wagon, but still pushing his bad coffee . . . the new squad ha some interesting characters, but we don’t spend much time with them. There are some great and colorful characters we brush into during the investigation, too. I don’t know. I liked it, but I can’t think of anything to say beyond that.

There’s a lot to commend in this novel, from great lines like: “He’d had wrong hunches before, enough for a convention of the Quasimodo fan club”; to the wide-ranging sources of trouble for Rebus; to the horrible history and equally horrible present behind the crimes — this is a solid and haunting novel. Something about this was a little off, I’m not sure what — at least as I think back on it, it doesn’t seem as fully developed as the last two. But in the moment I was gripped. I’m not saying that this isn’t fine, I just know Rankin can do better.

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3.5 Stars
2017 Library Love Challenge

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