Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Crime Fiction: Saints of the Shadow Bible
by Ian Rankin

Fans of Scottish police sleuth John Rebus will be delighted to learn that he’s once again front and center in Ian Rankin’s brand-new novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible (Orion). The book’s title refers to the very first CID team Rebus was assigned to, and the legal tome that allegedly guided their work, the Scottish Criminal Law. But back in the day, their guiding principle was “ignore the law, just get results,” so they made up the rules as they went along. Three decades later their tactics are coming back to haunt them; and with Rankin’s other, more recently introduced protagonist, Inspector Malcolm Fox, on the case, there’s no prize for guessing who’s caught in the middle.

After retiring (in 2007’s Exit Music) and then serving as a civilian consultant to the Lothian and Borders Police, former Detective Inspector Rebus is back in harness, but at a price. He’s taken advantage of a scheme to rejoin the force, but has had to accept a demotion to detective sergeant as part of the bargain. He’s investigating a cold case -- a wife reported missing more than a decade ago -- when he’s called to the scene of a car crash. A Volkswagen Golf has gone off a narrow country road at speed, hitting a tree head-on. Rebus and his now-superior officer, DI Siobhan Clarke, arrive to find that the driver, Jessica Traynor, has already been carted off to a hospital with minor injuries. As a lorry driver prepares to haul away the ruined car, they look over photographs taken by the first officers on the scene. Everything seems normal enough; perhaps the woman had been the victim of road rage, or had simply been distracted at a critical moment. But two things bother Rebus: the photos show one of the woman’s boots in the passenger-side foot well, and the car boot, or trunk, was closed. It had been opened, though, by the time the cops turned up at the crash site.

Arriving at the hospital to interview Jessica, Rebus and Clarke discover that her father has beaten them to her bedside. Owen Traynor is from London, a financier with access to a private plane. He’s understandably protective of his daughter, and anxious that the detectives don’t make more than necessary out of the roadway incident. But he does put them on to both Jessica’s flat-mate and her boyfriend. They leave wondering just who had been at the wheel before the collision. Their take on the situation does not improve when they learn that Owen Traynor has a short fuse: an investment deal in the south had gone sour and an investor had ended up in intensive care after a falling-out with the entrepreneur.

Jessica’s boyfriend turns out to be Forbes McKuskey -- student and son of Patrick McKuskey, the Justice Minister for Scotland and a prominent figure for the Yes side in the upcoming vote for Scottish independence. Both Forbes and Jessica’s flat-mate, Alice Bell, deny knowing anything about Jessica’s crash. But when Forbes’ father is beaten and hospitalized in a coma, suspicion falls on Traynor.

While all of this is going on, Professional Standards officer Malcolm Fox is mulling over his impending reassignment back into the ranks of the detectives he’d spent the past several years investigating. He knew he’d be shunned at best. Not a prospect to relish, then.

Before he leaves, however, Fox has been given one final assignment. Elinor Macari, the Solicitor General for Scotland, has tasked him with looking into a 30-year-old case: a low-level scumbag named Douglas Merchant had been murdered, and a man named Billy Saunders was arrested for the crime by Rebus’ old team. When it was discovered that crucial evidence in that case had been compromised, Saunders had walked, and the senior officer had resigned. Although the rest of the team members have since retired or died, Rebus alone remains on the force.

The whole thing spells trouble for John Rebus. Fox wants his cooperation in the cold case, and his former colleagues, if not exactly friends, expect Rebus to contain the investigation. Rebus is left pondering whether his return to active duty was a good idea after all.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll undoubtedly repeat it again someday: Ian Rankin is a master of layered plotting and nuanced characters, and his riveting dialogue never fails to hold the reader firmly in his grasp. Consider the following barroom exchange between Malcolm Fox and John Rebus:
‘You’re just barely back on the force. Something like this could jeopardize that ...’

‘What you’re saying is, if I help you I can be written out of the story?’

‘You know I can’t make those sorts of promises.’ But Fox’s tone of voice hinted otherwise.

‘And all I’d have to do is grass up some of my oldest friends?’

‘I’m not asking for that.’

‘You’re a piece of work, Fox. And let me tell you something I do know.’ Rebus was sliding out from the pew, getting to his feet. ‘You’re a baw-hair away from having served your time in The Complaints. Means you’ll be back in the fray soon, surrounded by people like me -- fun and games ahead, Inspector. I hope you’re not averse to a bit of ruck and maul ...’

‘Is that a threat?’

Rebus didn’t bother answering. He was sliding his arms into his coat. The pint was where he’d left it, not even half-finished.
No better crime writer exists today. Period. ◊

NOTE: A U.S. edition of Rankin’s Saints of the Shadow Bible is due out in mid-January of next year from Little, Brown.

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

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