London, early 1990s. Women are being attacked on the streets; their throats are slit, they’re stabbed in an unfortunate place and a bite mark is left on their stomachs. The first attack happens on Wolf street and thus the press, with their neverending creativity, dub him the Wolfman. Inspector John Rebus – lapsed Christian, alcoholic in denial, still straddling the line between ‘difficult person’ and ‘asshole’ – is called down to aid the investigation, but by whom? And why?
This is a curiously chaotic novel and the chaos is predominantly caused by the endless back-and-forth: interpersonally (I hate you – no, wait, I don’t); geographically (London – Edinburgh – London), even narratively (you’re definitely involved; no, wait, maybe you aren’t). It also seems almost as if Rankin’s editor told him the book was too long but he didn’t feel like doing a rewrite, so he rushed the ending instead. And that’s a shame because despite the chaos, I enjoyed about 70% of the novel. Rankin knows how to turn a phrase and the mystery is intriguing. Chapters about the investigation are interspersed with shorter paragraphs seen from the perspective of the perpetrator, which are genuinely creepy and disconcerting. It has its redeeming qualities.
Unfortunately, the chaos doesn’t really help and neither does Rebus. His budding friendship with his London colleague George Flight is mostly fun, though Rebus’ erratic behaviour isn’t as charming as either of them seems to think it is. There are a couple of rather infuriatingly useless subplots about Rebus’ daughter’s no-good boyfriend, an overeager and doe-eyed psychologist and a snivelling underling. The underling’s name is Lamb because OF COURSE it is. The character’s smeared onto the pages like shit: common, unsubtle and whatever the literary equivalent of malodorous is. And of course, everything is wrapped up neatly. With a bow on top. No loose ends left in London. Apparently the risk of being unoriginal outweighs the risk of readerly disappointment.
It also has a woman problem. Women in Rebus novels – the first ones at least; we’re still in the early nineties, so maybe they’ve improved by now – tend to come in two varieties. It’s not quite the Madonna and the Whore, but only because for the novel to work as male wish fulfillment, the Madonnas have to want to sleep with the main character. Instead, they’re waifs or bitches. They bitches don’t want to sleep with Rebus. The waifs do. The bitches’ competence is usually not up for debate – at worst, they get by – but the waifs neeeeeeeeed Rebus like a toddler needs a juice box and The Teletubbies. It’s infuriating.
As for the ending, the novel turns on its head and turns into a pastiche, which is both funny and completely at odds with the rest of the novel. Again, it’s like Rankin was told to finish the damn book by a grumpy editor, got hammered one night and decided to churn out a fuck-if-I-care conclusion. That’s not a complaint. I mostly liked the ending. I mostly liked the first parts of the book as well, but choices were made here and, well, one feels baffled.
I’ll probably read the next installment, but by now it’s mostly to see whether they’ll get any better. Considering that Rebus is now on book 23, I would hope he’s figured some shit out by now.