In the interests of full disclosure I should set on record that Detective John Rebus, the irascible Scottish cop who walks a sometimes wobbly path between the right and wrong side of the law, is one of my favourite literary characters. When author Ian Rankin decided to metaphorically bump him off because he felt the character had run his course it was like losing an old friend. The fact that he didn’t kill off Rebus but simply retire him, is perhaps indicative of Rankin’s inherent indecision.
Another Man’s Grave, released last year, marked the return of Rebus. He had dropped in rank but was otherwise unchanged with a work practice characterised by total disregard for process and protocol balanced by razor-sharp intuition and dogged pursuit of clues. The newly-released Saints of the Shadow Bible, the 20th Rebus book, is better. Possibly one of the best Rankin has written.
An investigation into a seemingly straight forward road accident becomes more sinister when a senior politician dies after being brutally bashed at his home. Rebus manages to weasel himself onto the case reporting to his former protégé, DI Siobhan Clarke, one of the force’s rising stars. Clarke is a great female character, much more complex than most of the senior female officers in other crime novels.
But Rebus also finds himself tangling with Malcolm Fox from the Professional Standards team (the cops who investigate the cops) when a change in the double jeopardy laws means an old case is re-opened. Thirty years before, Rebus was a young detective who had just joined a tight-knit team (the Saints of the book’s title) at Summerhall CID. Billy Saunders, the department’s snitch, had been tried for beating a man to death but got off after the detectives deliberately threw the case. Even after the decades since they last worked together, Rebus is one of the gang and the others expect that he will make the problem go away for them. But Saints of the Shadow Bible brings us a more mellow Rebus, one who is forced to analyse the circumstances that forged him and query the value of loyalty and friendship based that are on shifting moral sands.
The “win at all cost” mantra that had been the hallmark of that period gets increasingly uglier as Rebus and Fox peel away the layers of loyalty, lies and politics. A grudging respect grows between the two men as each recognises that the other is a more complex and shaded individual than the apparent black-and-white label they work under.
In Saints of the Shadow Bible Rankin doesn’t make excuses for the kind of policing where corners weren’t just cut they were obliterated, he just tells it like it was when the ends justified the means. As always he takes the reader on a visceral warts-and-all walk through Edinburgh. And he shows that Rebus is as strong and fascinating a character as ever. More please.
Saints of the Shadow Bible is published by Hachette.