Tuesday, September 25, 2007

exit music, by ian rankin

I've never read much crime fiction, always been rather inclined against it, but I've come to feel the same way about Ian Rankin as I do about John Le Carre - he's a simply brilliant novelist who happens to write in a genre I seldom otherwise enjoy. My lack of knowledge on the subject either inhibits or releases me, depending on whether you think someone ought to be (over)educated in the subject if they deign to offer an opinion. Is he a good crime writer? I don't know - I don't know what crime readers look for. I imagine they look for complexity; hidden motives, double meanings, cryptic scenarios. But not, perhaps, complexity of emotion - crimes are solved but how often is the protagonist changed? Don't all crime novels begin and end at the same fixed points?

I don't know enough, so I have to judge Ian Rankin not by his contribution to the genre but by his success as a writer. I don't read his books to find out whodunnit. I read it because if indeed character development is discouraged in crime writing, Rankin breaks these rules. John Rebus, the central character of Rankin's ongoing (and hugely popular) cop story, is a real character, larger than life. And Rankin's writing, though not pretty, is bloody good, the Edinburgh he summons on the page startlingly vivid, the stories complex in both senses.

'Exit Music' (which follows Rankin's tradition of using a song name for a title - in this instance Steve Lindsay's) has received more press than most because it is Rebus's swansong. Set in the same week that Alexander Litvinenko clings to life in a London hospital, 'Exit Music' finds John Rebus struggling to hold on to his job (which is, in turn his life) in the last week of his police career. Due for retirement, and still possessed with the burning desire to see off his great adversary, Big Ger Cafferty, Rebus finds himself once more immersed in a case and once more operating outside the rules.

Rankin's recent Rebus novels have taken pains to locate the DI's adventures in the context of contemporary events, and 'Exit Music' proves to be no exception. Indeed, combined with the drama of Rebus's disintegrating career, this allegory of modern Scotland almost relegates the plotline to a backseat. Rankin sets out to address, in his final Rebus novel, the spectre of an independent Scotland, finding key roles for SNP ministers and national bankers alongside the requisite drug addicts and gangsters. With independence increasingly likely, Rebus finds the establishment jockying for land, power and influence, confirming his intuition that after all these years chasing the underworld, the overworld too has its share of corruption, violence and intrigue. Topically, he introduces to his cast of suspects a motley collection of Russian diplomats and ogliarchs, who he suspects are implicated in the murder of a Russian dissident poet, recently found dead outside an Edinburgh car park. With politicians, financiers and police chiefs urging him away, Rebus does what we can always rely on him doing - he gives chase.

Far more crucial, however, is the fact of his retirement. He is, we are told countless times, 'on the scrapheap', about to be given his 'jotters', finished. Rankin's moment of genius is to take him off the case - only when he is suspended and removed from the familiar surroundings of Gayfield Square, is Rebus able to embark upon the mental journey which has escaped him throughout Rankin's novels - dissasociation. Not that Rebus lets slip his obsession with Cafferty, or his determination to put away the murderer, but the final third of the book finds him battling the demon that he has always come up against - himself. Still a strange, utterly convincing combination of belligerant misanthropist and hero, Rebus ends the book in a way that none of us - least of all himself - could have foreseen. In a book which often opts for reflection and regret over violence (Rebus even gets away without a beating in 'Exit Music', when did that last happen?), Rankin conjures up a magnificent close to this most satisfying novel, Rebus pounding, punching and pumelling to the last. His role in this final book is so all-encompassing that I have to remind myself to say that Siobhan, for too long his sidekick, is a fully realised and very dynamic character too. Well worth a series of her own, you might say.

Over eighteen novels Rankin has written a crime series which is far more than the sum of its parts. It's a body of work which provides a fascinating alternative history of modern Edinburgh, a series with a hard, powerful moral centre, a set of books which are invariably hideously involving, even if they're not all that poetic. Most of all, of course, it's a deep, deft and masterful portrait of John Rebus - a flawed, bigoted, loveable bastard, and one that a lot of people, I suspect, are going to miss.

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