Pearsall's Books

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Thursday, December 09, 2004

Life of Crime: Ian Rankin

A new occassional series discussing my favorite crime novel writers and their characters.

Ian Rankin is almost unquestionably the most famous and popular author in Scotland at the moment, and the biggest crime novelist in the UK. His Inspector Rebus series of novels, the latest of which is Fleshmarket Close (although A Question of Blood is the most recent US release), account for an astounding 10.6% of the UK market in crime novels.

The central figure in all of his novels is Inspector John Rebus, an Edinburgh detective in the classic, gritty mould. Born in Fife (the county across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh) he drifted into police work after a stint in the Army. Hard-drinking, chain-smoking, with magnificent ill-regard for his own health, he is a fantastically grouchy character. A divorced father of one, a loner and a general all-around prickly bastard he lives his life alternating between being smashed and being wracked by self-loathing and doubts. A wildly unpopular figure among his superiors he is generally shunted off to the most difficult and strangest cases. Of course, since these are novels, he always, somehow, solves the case.

A character that looms as large in these novels is the city itself. I lived in Edinburgh for four years when I was at Edinburgh University and it is always a pleasure to read Rankin's books because his depictions of the city are just so on. The Edinburgh of Rankin's books is a city of dark tenements looming up to block out the slate grey sky, of dark secrets behind the posh, buttoned-up exterior of the New Town, of desperation, drugs, and violence on the vast public housing schemes that ring the outer edge of the city. A city of scenes: shoppers walking up and down Princes Street, of the docks of Leith, students marching out of Marchmont and Newington to the University, the eternal rivalry between Hibs and Hearts, of working-class families from all over Scotland on the beach at Portobello in the summer, of the captains of finance and the law relaxing in their Barnton mansions and their New Town townhouses, of late-night revelry on the Cowgate. It is also a city of laughter, a city full of people who are amazingly friendly once you break through the outer shell that the weather conditions, and Rankin perfectly describes all this too. It is a city of facades, a city where the air seems impregnated with secrets hidden the ancient exterior of things, a place with the sense that there are some things you will never know, and Rankin takes you into this, revealing some of what lies behind.

If you like crime/mystery novels, then trust me, they're great books.

|| RPH || 7:35 PM || |