“The End of a Long Song”: Ian Rankin, Even Dogs in the Wild

“But you’re making progress, showing the youngsters a thing or two.”

“It feels like the end of a long song, though — men like Cafferty and Joe Stark . . . and me too, come to that . . . we’re on our last legs. Our way of doing things seems . . . I don’t know.”

“Last century?”

“Aye, maybe.”

As he takes Rebus (and thus his readers) through various phases of the old curmudgeon’s on-again off-again retirement, Ian Rankin seems to me to be inventing a new subgenre — call it, maybe, elegiac crime fiction. There’s something odd about it, because the pervasive nostalgia is not just about (though it’s closely tied to) Rebus’s consciousness of aging, and of being gradually displaced by a younger generation that does things differently and isn’t much interested in old methods or old stories. In Even Dogs in the Wild, it’s also about an older generation of criminals, particularly Rebus’s old nemesis “Big Ger” Cafferty, who is being similarly edged out by new kids on the block who are as indifferent to his authority and as keen to usurp his status as any of the young cops around Rebus.

Some of this is standard passing of the torch stuff, the old order fading and yielding place to new. Having been with Rebus and Cafferty so long, though, and because a lot of the novel is told from their point of view, we inclined to sympathize with them, despite their many past transgressions. This is right and proper enough with Rebus, but it’s a bit disconcerting to realize you are rooting for Cafferty to survive, even if he does declare himself ready to apologize and even make amends for some of the things he’s done. Between them, he and Rebus repeatedly suggest that however nasty things got in the old days, still, there was something about that old way of being a cop and being a criminal that had more dignity to it than the new ways offer. In a strange way, they share a set of values, although they embody its flip sides, and that’s what enables them, particularly in these later books, to work as allies.

I don’t have a lot else to say about Even Dogs in the Wild. Rankin knows what he’s doing: the book is characteristically well written, its plot is cleverly built up, and the pieces of it fall into place with expert pacing from the novel’s gripping start to its epilogue. Malcolm Fox is well integrated into the Rebus books now; his relationships with both Siobhan and Rebus are both plausible, and the three of them continue to develop as characters, though I don’t think there’s much here specifically to learn about our oldest two friends in the series. I appreciate the way Rankin weaves past and present together in the cases here; it suits the book’s emphasis on changing times and serves his ongoing interest in the ways contemporary Edinburgh carries traces of the city’s history.

It is hard not to wonder how much longer Rebus can go on. For all his involvement in the case this time, he’s a civilian now. His identity has always been so bound up in his work, though, that given Rankin’s commitment to letting him age naturally, and the increasing oddity (or so I imagine) of a retired cop being active in current investigations, at some point presumably he really does have to retire — or die, which might seem like a better end for him than seeing him malinger in a “care home” like the one Malcolm Fox’s father has been in, or where he visits one if the witnesses in the case. At any rate, in Even Dogs in the Wild he’s clearly in the mood to take stock, and one reason he does keep at it is because, for him, the underlying principle of the work is the most important thing. “What did it matter,” he wonders, contemplating the possibility that the suspect in a string of murders, who has a damn good motive for them, might not be stopped or caught? But “somehow it did”:

it did matter. Always had, always would. Not because of any of the victims or perpetrators, but for Rebus himself. Because if none of it mattered, than neither did he.

Ian Rankin explains that the title is taken from this song, which is suitably bleak and haunting for a book that, like all of Rankin’s, takes us imaginatively to grim places we’d rather avoid.

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