“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.

This Week In My Classes: What Makes a “Teachable” Novel?

This week I decided to call my own bluff.

knots_crossesI spend a lot of time fretting about which books I assign in my Mystery and Detective Fiction course — because once you get past the few absolute “must haves” (something by Poe, some Sherlock Holmes, The Moonstone, something to represent the Golden Age, one of the hard-boiled essentials) there are many good reasons but no real imperatives to help me choose from the tens of thousands of possibilities. My guiding principles are coverage (of the major subgenres, such as the police procedural) and diversity (of voice or point of view), but that doesn’t really narrow things down that much. I’ve asked for suggestions quite a few times here, with great results: I have readers like Dorian to thank, for instance, for prodding me to read Sjöwall and Wahlöö, whose The Terrorists is currently a staple of my course reading list.

I tweak that list pretty regularly, and I’m always turning over alternatives in my mind. One of the books I’ve assigned the most is Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, which is his first Rebus novel. As often the case with the first books in a series, it is in some ways his most self-conscious, and it doesn’t assume any prior knowledge of Rebus on our part, which is useful for classroom purposes. It’s also a nifty little book in its own way, neatly constructed, with lots of clever twists; its deliberate invocations of the Scottish gothic tradition make it nicely literary and its inquiry into masculine identity, military “bonding,” and repression usually spark good discussion. It’s not the best Rebus novel, though (I know Rankin doesn’t think so either): the others, especially the more recent ones, have a broader social and political reach and do more as police procedurals, while Knots and Crosses (which was not intended as a “crime novel” to begin with) is really more of a psychological thriller. Every time I teach Knots and Crosses, then, I mutter to myself (and sometimes remark to the class) that to really see what Rankin and Rebus can do, we should read something else. Yet I have never acted on that conviction.

This week, then, I decided I should reread one of the others that has long been in my mind as an alternative: 2006’s The Naming of the Dead. Set in Edinburgh during the 2005 G8 meeting, it balances its murder investigations against political crimes and misdemeanors of all kinds. Siobhan Clarke is on the case too, but involved personally as well as professionally, and Rebus’s old antagonist, “Big Ger” Cafferty, becomes an uneasy ally. My recollection of the book is that it explored lots of themes we’re always interested in in this class, especially gray areas between crime and detection, or tensions between the law and real justice. Rereading it, this impression has been confirmed, as has my sense that its political context gives Rankin the opportunity to do something similar to what Sjöwall and Wahlöö do, that is, extend particular criminal investigations to larger critiques of systems of power. Rankin’s novels have been acknowledged as contemporary versions of the Victorian ‘condition of England’ novel: with Knots and Crosses, you can’t see why, but with The Naming of the Dead, the genealogy works and would, I think, be really interesting to discuss.

namingofthedeadAnd yet … I am not convinced that I should replace Knots and Crosses after all! Much as I’m enjoying rereading it, I’m not sure it would be as teachable as Knots and Crosses, and my hesitation over this has had me wondering: what do I mean by “teachable”? It’s not something I ever really consider about Victorian novels when choosing among them for my 19th-century fiction classes, but when I’m scouting for mystery novels to assign — or contemplating assigning some new (or new to me) novel for an intro course — “How would this work in the classroom?” is always a concern. And for the majority of mystery novels I read, the (usually unarticulated) response to this question is “it wouldn’t”: I put most of them aside without seriously considering them for my syllabus, which strikes me as interesting. Why would that be? Might it (she says a little nervously) have something to do with the “literary” vs. “genre” fiction distinction? Or, to be more precise, with the ways that methods for “teaching” a novel (at least for me) align with qualities that are more likely to occur in “literary” fiction?

What qualities am I looking for in a novel I assign? I suppose the fundamental requirement is that there be something in it for us to talk about — not just for a few minutes, but for enough classroom hours that we can spread our work on the novel across whatever seems like a reasonable amount of time for the students to read the whole thing. The formula for this will vary depending on the level and nature of the class, of course, but anything that will take up a week or more of class time has to be of a certain complexity — and not just of plot, because just rehearsing what happened is not particularly valuable or interesting. It might sound foolish to put it this way, but to teach a book there also has to be something about it that needs explaining, as well as something that rewards discussion. Not all of this has to be generated by the intrinsic qualities of the book: a book might get some of its interest from external contexts — (literary) historical, for instance, or theoretical. But you don’t (well, I don’t) want to spend a lot of time on stuff around the book and only point to the book itself in passing: you want to dig in and really get to know it!

One way of labeling the process I’m most used to, pedagogically, would be “deep reading,” or “close reading.” Not all books reward that particular kind of reading equally. An alternative is “horizontal reading,” where the individual text is seen as part of a broad array of related and perhaps even quite similar material. Its interest arises at least in part, in that case, by comparison: among things of this kind, how is this particular one different or interesting? In Mystery and Detective Fiction we actually do a combination of the two. I spend a fair amount of time describing a broad horizon of comparison (because we don’t have time to read lots and lots of examples to establish it on our own) and then we consider how our specific example fits into or revises common conventions and tropes. Mystery fiction really is strongly governed by recognizable patterns which in their least interesting versions seem simply formulaic — which is not to say that there aren’t tropes and conventions and formulas in “literary” fiction too, and one reason I’m using scare-quotes is that I am very aware that the distinction I’m invoking is a vexed and imperfect one. But it seems silly to pretend there aren’t books that are very clearly of a kind, perhaps even repetitively or predictably so, and that whatever the pleasures they afford many readers, they don’t individually hold up under the kind of scrutiny I am inclined to give them in class. Or, in another variation on the problem, they don’t do something new and thought-provoking enough to those tropes and conventions that they jump out as examples we need to consider. I’m not judging these books in any absolute way, of course. I’m just measuring them by what I perceive as my pedagogical goals.

moonstone-oupThen there are other constraints on teachability: more pragmatic ones. Again, with Victorian novels I mostly don’t worry too much about these, though I am wise, or cautious, or jaded, enough never to assign two genuine door-stoppers in the same term  (say, Bleak House and Middlemarch). Students who sign up for “The 19th-Century Novel from Dickens to Hardy” have to know what they are getting into! But the mystery class is a lower-level course that is purely an elective for everybody in it. I can barely get them all through The Moonstone (and in fact I am confident there are always some who never make it to the end) — and that’s a book that’s so interesting I can barely stop talking about it myself! It earns its two weeks of class time by being not just important but really complex and (for the class) quite challenging. This is actually where I fear The Naming of the Dead  falls apart as an option (though I’m not 100% sure yet). Its nearly 500 pages are not nearly as dense as The Moonstone‘s, but in a way that’s just the problem: it goes on for almost as long a time without actually being as complex. It is broad, I might say, and it’s smart, but it’s not particularly deep. I’m not sure about this, because I haven’t tried to map out any lecture topics, but it would be a bad idea to assign 500 pages and then end up feeling like we were spinning our wheels in class.

It’s true that you can find something to say about almost anything, and that there is no one uniform approach that works for teaching all novels. The Naming of the Dead seems to me an in-between case: I’m ruling it out (I think) because it requires too big an investment for the likely payoff in this particular course. It also matters to me that Knots and Crosses — which is both short and suspenseful — is always very popular with students: it is often singled out in course evaluations as a favorite, for instance, and class discussions about it tend to be pretty lively. (This year The Terrorists has been our most-discussed book so far, though.) Maybe it will inspire students to go on and read more of Rankin’s (better) novels on their own; I’m guessing that the number who are inspired to read more Wilkie Collins is very small! I suppose I could swap it out for a different example of the police procedural. I’ve tried that before, actually: one year we read Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, which earned its spot on the list because the 87th Precinct series was ground-breaking of its kind. But for all that is interesting about it, Cop Hater is a really badly written novel, or so we ended up thinking by the time we’d talked it through. In that case, being teachable turned out not to be enough to teach it again!

If you’re curious about which books I’ve chosen over the years, in Mystery and Detective Fiction or in my other classes, you can get a good sense of the range by scanning the On Teaching page of this blog.

Recent Reading Round-Up: Mysteries, Romances, and Feminists

It isn’t that I haven’t done any reading since I posted on Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name; it’s just that none of the reading has felt really notable, or else it has been reading for work and thus not something I necessarily have more to say about here. I’m actually looking forward to getting into a book with a bit of heft to it (it doesn’t have to be literally weighty, just something that matters when I read it): I have a number of candidates lying around. At a minimum, I’ll be starting on Alexandros Papadiamantis’s The Murderess soon for my book club, which meets at the end of the month. But that’s so short: surely I can read something else before then! In the meantime, here’s a quick catch-up post on my recent, and quite miscellaneous, desultory reading.


1. Saints of the Shadow Bible. I’m not quite as enthusiastic about Rankin’s latest as Steve, who called it “rippingly good” in his review at Open Letters Weekly. It is good, but for me it was predictably so: it has all Rankin’s characteristic virtues, and now that I’ve gotten over my pleasure at having Rebus back in action, I feel (perhaps unfairly) a bit blasé about it. Rankin is very good at this kind of book, but as a result it doesn’t impress me very much when he does it again. This particular installment of the series is reliable but doesn’t take the characters or the genre in any new directions. I liked the ambition of some of the books from a few years back (Fleshmarket Close or The Naming of the Dead, for instance), which had a social and political agenda that broadened their scope. Here we’re just hunkered down with Rebus again. We are seeing Siobhan grow in stature: to me that remains the most promising direction Rebus could take the series in.

2. Mr. Impossible. Back in Ye Olden Days when I knew not what I was missing by not reading romance novels, Lord of Scoundrels was proposed as a possible conversion book. That did not go well (though the experiment as a whole was ultimately successful). I think that if Mr. Impossible had been proposed instead, it might have won me over, because it’s funnier. For some reason (OK, because I’m cynical), I prefer romance that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This was my second read of Mr. Impossible and I enjoyed it just as much. Actually, technically it was my second almost-read, or mostly-read, since I don’t read to the very end of many romance novels. The last pages (in some, the last chapters) almost always turn too cloying for my taste. Sure, all the way through I know pretty much how things are going to end, but often a lot of the energy goes out of the plot by the time the characters have overcome whatever is keeping them from their HEA. (Is that wrong or unusual of me? I can’t think of another genre in which I have fallen into this DNF habit. If I’m quite interested in the characters or the plot sustains some tension to the end, I’ll read it all, but sometimes I’ve just had enough. I also get most of my romance reading from the library, so I don’t feel any anxiety about dabbling in it rather than committing fully to it.)

3. Along those lines, I’ve been reading Nora Roberts’s Happy Every After, which is the 4th one in her “Bride Quartet.” It is hard to imagine a more anodyne series, really: sure, all of the main characters have tortured backstories of one kind or another, but there’s a bland formulaic simplicity to the novels that belies this attempt to give them depth. As a result, they are kind of relaxing, but the main thing I like about them is their “neepery.” Each protagonist in this quartet has a particular job, and there are lots of specifics about how it gets done. For whatever odd reason, I like that (I learned the wonderful term “neepery” from Victoria Janssen in a thread about the Dick Francis novels, which are full of it). I’m about half way through but I think I’m already about to DNF it for the reasons noted above. Plus, I already watched The Wedding Planner (speaking of predictable) so the neepery here isn’t as novel to me as the stuff about cakes or flowers in the other books.


4. Now that I’ve finished with the new Rebus, I’m catching up on V.I. Warshawski with Critical Mass. I’m not very far along in it yet, but like Saints of the Shadow Bible it feels familiar: these are the people, these are the moves, this is the style I expect from Paretsky. In neither case is this a bad thing! I wrote in some detail about Paretsky in a review of Body Work in Open Letters a couple of years ago. I teach her often (we just finished discussing Indemnity Only in ‘Women & Detective Ficton’ today, in fact) and admire her principled determination to use the form of the detective novel to advocate for social justice. If the results are occasionally somewhat didactic, more often than not she integrates her political with her artistic purposes pretty effectively.

5. How to Suppress Women’s Writing, by Joanna Russ. This too came to me by way of Victoria Janssen, and again I’m grateful! I was mentioning on Twitter that I’m working on A Room of One’s Own with my class, and she wondered if I’d ever paired it with Russ’s book. I haven’t, since I’d never read or even heard of How to Suppress Women’s Writing before, but I found it in our university library and have just finished reading it through. It certainly does pair up well with Woolf: I can imagine a lot of conversations that the juxtaposition would spark, not least because Woolf is a major figure in Russ’s own meditations on ways women writers have been opposed and discouraged through the ages. Her approach is (as she says herself) not systematic or scholarly but anecdotal and epigrammatic: she lines up examples under categories such as “Prohibitions,” “Bad Faith,” “False Categorizing,” and “Anomalousness.” Many of her earlier examples were familiar to me, especially those from the 19th century, but she carries her topics forward to her present (the book was published in 1983). At the same time I was preparing my lecture on women and writing and Woolf for my class and reading Russ’s book, an excellent essay by Anne Boyd Rioux on “Women’s Citizenship in the Republic of Letters” appeared at the VIDA site: while it would have been nicer to explain all this to my class as a historical phenomenon, it is good to be able to show them how the conversation we are having in class, through Woolf, is part of a larger ongoing one they might take an interest — and a part — in. And yet things have definitely changed. We read Woolf now in the context of decades of scholarship filling in the absences that preoccupy her; reading Russ I was happily struck by at least a few improvements, such as the availability of works such as Villette (which she recalls being unable to order for a class in 1971 because no US edition was in print) — or the impossibility (surely) that anyone at a university today would read Woolf’s novels “secretively and guiltily like bonbons,” as she describes herself doing, “ashamed of them because they were so ‘feminine.'”

Rebus is Back: Ian Rankin, Standing in Another Man’s Grave

rankingraveYes, 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.

Ian Rankin, Exit Music

Not long ago I observed that I would be sorry to see the last of Ian Rankin’s surly Scotch-soaked detective, John Rebus. Having now read Exit Music, my anticipated regrets are confirmed; Exit Music shows both Rankin and Rebus in characteristically good form. I don’t have much to add to what has been said about it already in reviews and other blogs (Miriam Burstein at The Little Professor, for instance, has a nice post on it), except to remark that this series exemplifies the challenge writers in this genre face with characterization–most of the characters, for plot and suspense reasons, need to be a degree opaque–as well as the best way they find out of it, namely the series characters, whose characterization can be enriched across many volumes even as, as characters, they change and develop. In this series, of course, it’s not just Rebus (who doesn’t really change much, actually, though we know him better and better), but Siobhan Clarke who offers the human interest and complexity that move the books beyond the superficiality to which ‘puzzle’ mysteries are vulnerable. At the same time, Rankin keeps a careful balance between personal and procedural developments. The close engagement between Rebus and Edinburgh’s history and politics, a thematic preoccupation since Knots and Crosses, is in full play here as well; in fact, Rebus’s brooding here about the city’s “overworld,” which he finds as threatening and corrupt as its “underworld,” reminded me very much of that first novel. Because we end up having relationships with series characters across long swathes of our own lives, Rebus’s brooding on the way his work has dominated his life and identity, and therefore on what and who he will be after retirement, couldn’t help but make me reflect on my own choices–and my own aging…in this respect at least, I appreciate Sue Grafton‘s decision to keep Kinsey Millhone back in the 1980s (no cell phone, never mind an iPod), though probably that is also one reason, among others, why that series seems to me rather to have stagnated.

Exit Rebus?

From The Guardian this week:

Rankin readers have known for several years that some kind of end was coming. Most series’ authors freeze their heroes’ birth-dates: realistically, John Le Carré’s George Smiley and PD James’s Adam Dalgliesh would have been beyond the care of the insurance industry in their later adventures. Rebus, however, has always passed a birthday during or between books and so his retirement from the force was always scheduled for November 2006, across 10 days of which Exit Music is set. Even this, as Rankin has scrupulously acknowledged in interviews, is strictly fantastical. Most cops get out as soon as they have piled enough years into their pension.

But the novels have always made it clear that Rebus remains a policeman because there is nothing else he can bear to be – he has failed in spells as husband, father, even, perhaps, as human being – and so Exit Music is underscored with a double line of heavy regret, Rebus wanting to go no more than the reader wishes him to. (Read the rest here–don’t worry, no spoilers!)

I’ll certainly be sorry to see him go; I’m a big fan of this series, which shows how an author can work within the structures and strictures of genre fiction to accomplish a wide range of literary and other effects. (P.D. James, another of my favourites, has said explicitly that the clear structure of detective stories frees her up to concentrate on other aspects of her fiction.*) I have taught the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, twice in my course on Mystery and Detective Fiction (and plan to assign it again this winter), not because I think it’s the best of the bunch but because Rankin works so well in it both with and against key elements of its genre that it ‘teaches well,’ as those of us in the lit biz say. Rankin claims that he did not intend to write a mystery novel (when I was prepping Knots and Crosses, I came across a story, perhaps an interview, in which he claims to have been dismayed to find it filed under mysteries rather than under fiction or literature). He was actually working on a Ph.D. in literature when he turned to writing fiction; he is wittily but ruthlessly dismissive of critical approaches to literature now (I’ve seen this in person, as he gave a reading and talk here a couple of years back)–this seems like a shame, as he is (despite his best efforts to hide it) clearly very knowledgeable about the history and craft of his chosen genre, as well as about literature and writing more generally. Does he think he’ll alienate readers if he drops the whole “I spend all my time at the pub” routine? (He was very funny about that, though, claiming to pass Alexander McCall Smith‘s house on his way to and fro and always hearing the clickety-clack of the keys there heralding the completion of yet another bestseller.)

*To hear a wonderful talk by P. D. James on “The Craft of the Mystery Story,” go here.