Rebus returns

Though I had not read any of the Rankin novels featuring the legendary John Rebus before, there was no trouble figuring out where he was coming from after the first few pages of Standing In Another Man’s Grave.

He is 62 now and retired, and cold cases are the only kind that he is offered. He still rarely sees his daughter and has, in the words of one unfriendly observer, “no current relationships, other than with the bottle and anyone who happened to sell tobacco.” He still rubs authority on the wrong side with every move he makes. Malcolm Fox, a teetotal inspector, who hates the sight of Rebus, says about him, “I know a cop gone bad when I see one. Rebus has spent so many years crossing the line he’s managed to rub it out altogether.”

The plot kicks into action when Nina Hazlitt, the mother of a teenage girl missing since 1999, convinces him that her daughter’s vanishing may be linked to other cases. The case acquires some urgency with the latest disappearance, that of Annette McKie, around the same region. The other common link between all these missing persons are the photographs sent from their cellphones to their close friends before their disappearance.
One interesting aspect of the investigative process is putting social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter into service. A photoshopping expert is called on to create e-fits, or images of how the girls would possibly look today, after the passage of time. The images sent from the cellphones of the girls are posted to invite photos of locations that looked similar. The e-fits too are let out into cyberspace for possible sightings.

But what gives the tale its mojo are the unconventional ways of Rebus, which includes drinking sessions with suspects as well as the mother of one of the missing girls. The most enjoyable parts of the investigation are the wild rides that Rebus takes all over Scotland, to its remotest corners (“Rebus began to wonder if he’d ever been so far from a pub in his life”), on his beat up Saab, loaded with CDs of his favourite artistes ranging from Scotsman Jackie Leven to Kate Bush and Led Zeppelin. In fact, the title of the book is born out of a Jackie Levin song, Standing In Another Man’s Rain, that Rebus mishears.

Standing In Another Man’s Grave belongs to that delightful genre of detective fiction where crime detection often takes the back seat, letting character study and relationships engage us. Resisting the charm of Nina Hazlitt, mother of one of the missing girls, who presents Rebus with The British Isles: Myth and Magic, a book she has edited, is one such continuing thread. His cat and mouse engagements with Frank Hammell, a West Lothian gangster, who is dating Annette McKie’s mother, and shares an edgy relationship with Annette’s brother Darryl, is another.

All through this, there is the platonic bond he shares with his one-time protégé, Siobhan Clarke. His thorny relationship with his daughter is brought to focus through a brief but poignant phone conversation between the two during his drive through northern Scotland trying to locate the possible spots from where those cellphone photos were sent.

Rankin is a master at invoking landscapes, towns, pubs, and yes, people, without indulging in lengthy descriptions. When Rebus goes to interview a pub manager, where he parks his Saab and how he gets out of it tells us more about Rebus’s state of mind than any authorial description could. Unheard of villages of Scotland, with Celtic names like Tillicoultry, Aviemore, Strathpeffer, and Pitlochry, materialise before our eyes as real places with the minimal, muscular prose of Rankin.

In a way, I was hooked more to Rankin’s prose rather than a compelling plot. The languorous pace really serves Rankin well, as you can savour every detail without being too bothered about whodunit and why. That is not to say that the plot is not engaging.

But it engages you not because of clever twists, but simply because you relate to the characters and care for their motivation. Of course, things get a bit more frenetic as a serial killer looms on the horizon, and we see a more driven, more obsessed Rebus, partly born out of a fear that he could be taken off the case and sent back to his boring existence of dealing with cold cases that remain cold.

“You were a bastard back then too. Just not so fat and old,” a former convict tells him. “Hard to disagree,” he responds. And that’s his charm. He is an outsider who will remain an outsider, musing about his mortality and old musicians of a certain grain, running away from relationships, looking for the next whisky bar, and a cold case turning hot.

Standing in Another Man’s grave
Ian Rankin
Hachette
2013, pp 422
399


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