by Ian Rankin
Series: Malcolm Fox, #1
Hardcover, 438 pg.
Little, Brown and Co., 2011
Read: November 20 – 22, 2018
I left the last Rankin book thinking, “If I didn’t know that there were more Rebus books coming, I’d be really depressed.” There are advantages to being this far behind a series. Thanks to a podcast interview I heard with Rankin around the time I started to plan my Rebus reading (I think it was this A Stab in the Dark episode), I knew that at some point, he pushed “Pause” on Rebus to introduce a new character — initially, I think, to replace Rebus. But it didn’t work out that way. Still, I wanted to read them in chronological order, so I could appreciate it when the new guy was merged into the Rebus books.
And that’s where we are now, with the introduction of The New Guy: Malcolm Fox, of the Complaints and Conduct division (aka “The Complaints”) — essentially, Internal Affairs (aka “The Rat Squad”). It’s almost like Rankin came up with a list of Rebus’ characteristics and put a “not-” in front of every one of them to create him. He doesn’t drink (because he’ll end up like Rebus does, or worse), he follows the rules (generally speaking), he gets along with and respects/trusts his superiors, he’s close with his family . . . et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. He’s a lot more likeable than Rebus, too — as a person and as a fictional character. He’s not as well-developed — this is his first book and Rebus had 17 at that point, so that makes sense. Although, typically, IAB/Complaints type characters are usually dramatic obstacles to the series protagonists and are therefore little-liked, so that was strange.
The novel starts with Fox riding high — he’s just closed a major investigation, and is doing clean up on that when he’s given a new assignment. He’ll be helping out another division — I suddenly forgot their name, but essentially, they’re the equivalent of the Special Victims Unit. So right away you know this is not going to be a fun book — a detective who polices the police investigating sex crimes. There’s just no way to paint a “fun-loving romp” face on that premise.
But before we can get too far down that road, a pretty big complication arises. (Minor Spoiler warning) The abusive boyfriend of Fox’s sister is found murdered. And guess who is the first suspect? That’s right. Better yet: guess who is one of the investigating officers? If you guessed the target of Fox’s new investigation, give yourself a pat on the back.
So Fox has to investigate a detective without him knowing about it, while being investigated by that same detective — and to keep it from looking like payback. Which is a pretty cool setup for a novel, you’ve got to admit. Better yet, it’s Rankin behind the wheel, so you know he can (and does) deliver on the setup.
The bulk of the novel is about Fox doing his best to find the killer — for his sister’s sake (primarily) — and keep himself out of the cross-hairs of the investigators. This will lead him to some very not-regulation investigative techniques, some of which might remind people of the Rankin creation that Fox isn’t. The mystery itself and the way it’s told is classic-Rankin. Lots of twists, a couple of good turns, very satisfying throughout.
Meanwhile, we get a pretty good character study/introduction to this new character through this — and through a friendship he develops with another detective during this. I really enjoyed the novel, and Rankin gave his new character a serious challenge to start with, a very cleverly constructed mystery to untangle. Fox is a worthy entry into the world of Rebus and Rankin.
I’ll leave with this — if after 2007’s Exit Music I’d have been nervous about what was to come next, I’d have been relieved after 2009’s The Complaints. Now, I’m just eager to see the two detectives on the same page.