Edinburgh, 1986. A number of young girls disappear. They’re abducted seemingly randomly, strangled and their corpses abandoned. All of Edinburgh’s police force is on top of it and so is John Rebus, a chain smoking, hard drinking former marine who now works as a burnt-out office drone for Edinburgh’s constabulary. It’s not that he doesn’t care, but the work he does is monotonous and neverending, and he’s far away from the action – at least, he thinks so. But someone keeps sending him letters, letters that don’t make any sense until he puts two and two together.
I’ve read my fair share of thrillers, but I’d never read a Rebus book until now. I’m not sure why I kept putting it off, because Rankin isn’t exactly an unknown name in the business. Maybe I just wasn’t looking forward to another run off the mill thriller about a MAN with ISSUES who SOLVES CRIME. This fits the mold, but there are a couple of things that put this above the fray.
Rebus himself is a fairly interesting guy. In many ways he’s Detective Lit 101. Traumatic past, check. Absent parent(s); check. Divorce? Drinking habit? Yes and yes. However, the book is never really about how difficult Rebus’ life is; he’s not so much struggling as he is plodding, trudging his way through his tedious life full of disappointments. He’s not even particularly good (or bad) at his job; his boss barely knows who he is. He’s not even particularly driven. His private life is a mess, but he seems to have figured out a routine that sort-of works. He’s the hard-boiled detective but literally: bland, uninteresting, vaguely wholesome and crumbling on the inside.
Of course, the killer inevitably singles out Rebus and race against the clock and yada yada yada. In that regard it’s not very original, though some of that can be forgiven by the fact that it was published in 1987; it’s not derivative so much as it is a novel from which others derive inspiration. It’s also pretty easy to guess who the killer is, and while I like Rebus it seems implausible that it never occurs to him to look into the mysterious letters he’s been receiving. There are many subplots and tangents, not all of them equally relevant or interesting. Also, because this is a book written by a man in the mid eighties, women function mostly as conveyor belts: they’re there for men to dump their baggage on and keep them going. The prose, while better than most, is rather uneven in places, though that might just be my clunky translation at work.
Ultimately, though, I liked it. As a character, Rebus manages to embrace every cliché under the sun while still being original. There’s something deeply sad about it too, something mournful and melancholy that I enjoyed, and Rankin has an eye for painting characters in a few minimal yet deft brush strokes. Nobody is really as they appear from the outside. Except the women, of course. Considering Rebus now has more installments than James Bond I’m quite curious to see if this gets any better. The novel definitely isn’t perfect, but it has its charm and I’m looking forward to the next installment.