August 27, 2018


John Rebus

Rather be the Devil, by Ian Rankin
384 pages, Orion

Review by Pat Black

Rebus is off the force, but still on the case, in Rather be the Devil.

There were fears that when the inspector finally turned in his warrant card, we’d seen the last of him. But as he nudges his golden years, Rebus still likes to carry out inquiries in his own way – it’s just that while in retirement, he isn’t exactly following the letter of the law. He never did anyway.

I will admit that I found Rebus hard to get into at first. The first three novels in Ian Rankin’s long-running series were okay, but nothing special – it was only when I got an omnibus edition featuring Let It Bleed, Black And Blue and The Hanging Garden that I recognised how good they had become.

Black And Blue – which sees Rebus going after Glasgow’s true-life serial killer Bible John, while a copycat murderer stalks Edinburgh – is one of the finest modern Scottish novels, period. Twenty years after that Tartan Noir landmark, Rankin’s books are enviably smooth, fine-tuned machines. The lesson for muggles is: You do something for long enough, and you enjoy what you do, then you will get good at it. You might even become the best.

This is the 21st Rebus novel. I felt Rankin painted himself into a corner by having his inspector age in real-time, but he’s sticking to it, and even using time’s relentless work as a means of opening up new and interesting territory. Now retired, in his sixties and not in the best of health, Rebus spends his time looking into old, unsolved cases.

One of these dates from the late 1970s, and concerns Maria Turquand, the wife of a wealthy businessman who was strangled in Edinburgh’s Caledonian Hotel on the same night a big touring rock band was in town. There were lots of suspects, but little evidence, and the killer was never caught.

The case gnaws at Rebus. So does something else – an intrusion on his lung, subject to tests. Rebus calls this Shadowy internal foe Hank Marvin, and refers to it almost affectionately, but he’s worried about it. After a lifetime of cigarettes, bacon rolls, real ales and neat Scotch, a series of health kicks are under way for this classic central belt male. He attempts a diet, he’s canned the booze and the ciggies, and he’s even flirting with exercise in step with a new pet dog – but you get the feeling that horse has all but disappeared over the hill.

Rebus speaks to a fellow former cop who worked on the Turquand case, who is now earning pin money as a bouncer. The day after their chat, the retired policeman bobs up in the Water of Leith, quite dead, totally murdered.

Next up, Darryl Christie, a young pretender to “Big Ger” Cafferty’s gangland throne in Edinburgh, has been given a solid beating. This raises fears among Police Scotland’s finest that the two men’s armies might be gearing up for a turf war. Like Rebus, Cafferty is more or less retired, but suspicion comes the ageing Mr Big’s way - despite the fact that known flake and troublemaker Craw Shand has confessed to carrying out the doin’.

We’re not finished yet. There’s another plotline, concerning a businessman connected to Christie who has disappeared, along with a big chunk of cash which the police suspect was being laundered for some shady people from former Soviet territory.

Closing in on thirty years after the Berlin Wall fell, we seem to have gone back to using eastern Europeans as a trope for “indescribably bad people” in fiction. Is this racist? It’s certainly a cliché. I’ve done it myself, I have to confess. “Aw naw – it’s McGlutsky! The baddest comrade in town! You’ll know him by his hard consonants!”

It’s not on the same level as the “yellow peril” racism of Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless (is the latter the green peril, in fact?), but it rests in the same wall-mounted unit. Next thing you know, we’ll be worrying about hard Glaswegians. We have to be wary of cliché, and that’s true of big or small writers, whether they’re producing candy floss or filet mignon. I guess Sax Rohmer and others had no idea how terrible their work would appear to readers 100 years later (though they caused a fair stink at the time).

Before the Wall came down, a very wise teacher of mine said in response to a gag someone made at the expense of the Soviet Union: “It’s all propaganda. Focus on the people.”

In Rankin’s defence – and my own – Russian and Ukrainian gangsters  exist, all right, and dirty money and power linked to property owned by people from these places are an issue in British society; no doubt about that either. We might blame capitalism at this point, assume a sage expression, and withdraw.

Looking after the Darryl Christie and dirty cash inquiries are Malcolm Fox, last seen haunting Police Scotland’s internal affairs department, and series stalwart Siobhan Clarke, a detective working at the recently unified force’s Gartcosh nerve centre with a team who don’t take kindly to newcomers.

I have to admit, at one point I was struggling to remember what the Gartcosh team were supposed to be investigating.

Ian Rankin has stated that he doesn’t write these stories to a detailed plan – reasoning that if he can fool himself, he can fool the reader. In some of the older books, this haphazard method really shows. Hide & Seek, his second novel, was a 200-page search for a plot, rather than a series of clues for Rebus to follow in order to solve a mystery. In this, an old observation about the series comes into play: that they’re not really crime novels, more of an anatomy lesson dissecting Scotland’s dark, divided heart. I wondered at the time if Rankin knew himself where he was going with it when he started writing; it seems not.

Now, though, the books are tightly and convincingly plotted. If Rankin truly does just wind himself up and go, carrying all this stuff in his head, or discovering it as he travels, then it’s a remarkable skill. Any one of the plot strands in this book would have made a decent case alone. Rankin untangles this spaghetti junction of storylines and protagonists with a deft hand.

Deliciously, Rebus and Fox don’t really get on. The internal affairs guy is a straight shooter, while Rebus rarely colours inside the lines. Fox is also easy to wind up, which Rebus mercilessly exploits. However, Fox is an excellent copper, and the two men recognise each other’s strengths, and help each other out. Clarke, while certainly no mother hen, keeps the pair of them in line. Fox and Clarke are also fond of each other, and there’s surely a situation brewing there.

The principals are all compromised in some way. Rebus is almost pally with Ger Cafferty, his crime lord nemesis. This put me in mind of Smiley versus Karla in John Le Carre’s work – there’s a bit too much respect on the part of the good guy, whereas the baddie will simply do the dirty without any hesitation. In order to bring down Cafferty for good, Rebus will surely have to sink to his level. Elsewhere, Fox is badly exposed by a family member with a problem, while Clarke has been caught on camera after getting out of control on a night out.

Rebus has a few things to worry about as his clock begins to run down – chiefly “Hank Marvin”, lurking somewhere in his chest cavity – but he’s still the same snarky, natural-born Scottish cynic we’ve all grown up with.

The former inspector is a curious character. I sometimes forget that he is meant to be a tough guy, having joined the police after leaving the SAS. But I never think of him as the type to bust heads or get into scraps, even when he does.

Rebus is actually a flyman – crafty, full of tricks, outsmarting people first and foremost because he enjoys it. Someone you can’t really trust. Rebus seems more of a natural thief or mountebank than a policeman or a guardian. He’s closer to Craw Shand than Ger Cafferty, on the masculinity spectrum.

Everything ties off nicely, and (a curious effect you get with e-readers that don’t give you a percentage count) the book seems to finish all too soon despite being a good length.

It’s an excellent read. Fans will be well pleased. There’s a new one of these every year – with another due out in a matter of weeks, in fact. What more can you ask for?

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