Yes, Rebus is back, and it’s good to see him again, the sodden old crank. The Malcolm Fox novels have been fine, but I don’t find Fox as interesting a character as Rebus–though that could be because I’ve known Rebus for so long. Also, I had hoped that Rankin would take up Siobhan Clarke as his protagonist when Rebus retired. She has quite a prominent role in Standing in Another Man’s Grave, so my hope of that is renewed!
Rebus is back — and that seemed to me the major feature of this new novel. It’s a solid, well-constructed procedural on its own merits — Rankin is an experienced pro at this, after all — but it’s as a novel of character that Standing in Another Man’s Grave is most interesting. It doesn’t have the ambitious scale or political reach of the late books in the initial Rebus series, particularly Fleshmarket Close (which is described on the cover as a “state of the nation novel”–surely a variation on what I talk about in the 19thC context as a “condition of England novel”) or The Naming of the Dead. Both of these work their particular crimes up as symptoms of much wider social evils. By contrast, the case in Standing in Another Man’s Grave is mostly an occasion for Rebus to revisit and rethink his identity as a detective as he contemplates a move from the cold case unit he moved to on retirement back into active service (something made possible as a plot twist by changes in regulations). The case itself seemed a little perfunctory, except that in linking together old cases with new, it continues the preoccupation of all of the Rebus novels with the complex relationship between past and present.
Here, it’s Rebus himself who often seems like a relic of the past, something Rankin can make the most of because this novel is itself a kind of throwback. While Rebus was out of our sight, our world and his was changing, and his ways of doing things — always borderline inappropriate — are now conspicuously “old-school,” as Malcolm Fox’s colleague Tony Kaye points out. Rankin set Fox up to be in many ways Rebus’s antithesis, and here we see Fox determined to put an end to Rebus’s tainted career. “I know a cop gone bad when I see one,” he tells Siobhan, warning her to cut ties if she values her own career advancement:
Rebus has spent so many years crossing the line, he’s managed to rub it out altogether. As far as he’s concerned, his way’s the right way, no matter how wrong the rest of us might know it to be.
“You don’t know him,” Siobhan replies, and that’s what long-time Rebus readers would say as well: Fox’s summary is pretty accurate, except for his conclusion that Rebus’s disregard for rules, protocols, and lines proves him to have “gone bad.” Rebus’s methods may be unorthodox, but the law and the right do not always completely coincide, and Fox’s determination to put Rebus on one side or the other of that line shows his own moral limitations, or at least his own moral rigidity.
Standing in Another Man’s Grave is in some ways an affirmation of Rebus’s approach. As Kaye tells Fox,
Rebus got results the old way, without seeming to earn them. He did that because he got close to some nasty people in a way that you couldn’t. . . . Rebus specialises in something a bit different — doesn’t necessarily make him the enemy.
Rebus gets results here too, through “old-school” contacts, hunches, and the weary, dogged persistence that has seen him through so many cases before.
Standing in Another Man’s Grave is not quite a triumphant return to form for Rebus, though. Rebus proves himself still up to the job, but just barely — not so much because he’s bemused by new methods and new media, such as Twitter (a bit of an inside joke from Rankin, who is a frequent and adept user of social media — you can follow him at @beathhigh if you’re interested) but because he’s just barely hanging in there physically, and no wonder, considering he smokes and drinks incessantly. Even if his application to be reinstated is accepted, how long before he’s in his own grave? His ancient Saab, also on its last legs (wheels?), becomes a metaphor for his debilitated condition. “And the Saab didn’t break down?” asks Siobhan after one of Rebus’s long trips to check out leads. “Not ready for the knacker’s yard just yet,” replies Rebus, and the same seems to be true of him. Maybe there’s one more Rebus novel left in him before Siobhan gets her chance at the lead role.
I read this last weekend and marvelled yet again at what a consummate story-teller Rankin is. I agree it perhaps isn’t the best of the Rebus’ books but it still had me spellbound. You know, the ‘just one more chapter and then I’ll go an do whatever it is I’m actually supposed to be doing’ phenomena. Actually, I could have done with it this weekend when we’re just about snowed in. Maybe I might go back and re-read the whole series from the beginning.
I agree, Alex, and by “perfunctory” I don’t mean to shortchange that aspect of it: it was more that I didn’t feel the details of the plot were themselves essential — it could have been any case that gave Rebus an occasion to come out of the cold case unit for a bit. I also liked the layer about Scottish myths and monsters: Rankin is very good at summoning up an image of Scotland that is rich in history and folklore, a place full of memories and mysteries that go back well beyond the immediate problems of any given inquiry.