Tuesday, 28 July 2009


Although C usually decries genre fiction, and doesn't get involved in long series of novels (with the exception of three involving Frank Bascombe), she has been quite taken by the tales concerning Detective Inspector John Rebus written by the Scottish novelist Ian Rankin. As she recently finished Rankin's final novel with Rebus, I thought it was time for me to pick the series up again. I started once before, pre-blog, but found the very first novel, Knots And Crosses, fairly unremarkable, and just a little bit clichéd. Of course, I was forgetting that Rankin began writing Rebus long before many of the TV series and films that I mistook the novel as aping. So what I took for the traipsing out of tired storylines was just my late reading of a novel somewhat out of its time. Anyway, with such a gold standard recommendation from C, I thought it was long past time that I got around to Hide & Seek.

The novel begins not, seemingly, with a murder, but with the discovery of a dead junkie, an altogether too-common occurrence in the more squalid reaches of Edinburgh. However, with just about enough quirks to attract the attention of the attending coroner, including a hint of the occult, a more senior officer, DI Rebus, is brought in for a look. Enough intrigues Rebus for him to take an interest in the case, despite a call from his superior upstairs to lead a charitable drive to tackle the city's drug problems. Rebus is aided, as police officers often are in fiction, by a disastrous personal life that makes few, if any, calls on his time outside work, freeing him up for extra-curricular investigation. Before long, his efforts have turned up a friend (girlfriend?) of the dead addict, and a slumming university student with an interest in the occult. These hint at others who may have had an interest in seeing the man dead, including a shadowy figure that Rebus comes to know as Hide, or is it Hyde? Whoever he is, he somehow appears able to skip ahead of Rebus at each turn, subtly interfering and stalling every step of progress. At the same time, through the glad-handing of the drug charity, Rebus gains temporary entry into the world of the corporate gentry who preside over Edinburgh. This gives him tantalising glimpses of men with altogether different appetites, glimpses that begin to trace patterns in Rebus' mind.

First up, this is a better and more enjoyable novel than its predecessor, Knots And Crosses. While it does tread over some of the classic tropes of detective fiction, it's never stale, and it mixes things up sufficiently to keep the reader guessing throughout at what's going on. In surrounding the investigation with layer after layer of seemingly disconnected aspects of the case, Rankin is able to give the reader the experience that Rebus feels during the novel: that nothing makes sense, that the investigation is spiralling wider and wider and that something outside the case is pulling the strings. In a good way, of course. And Rankin's able to tie it all up satisfyingly by the end, which always helps.

What also helps is Rankin's ability as a writer. I've not read an awful lot of crime fiction, but he's clearly a cut above almost all that I have read. While the genre does create expectations that description and character are generally in the service of plot, Rankin still breathes a lot of life into the novel. All of the different facets of Edinburgh, for instance, come alive, albeit to mostly skulk malevolently about the reader.

One of the more disappointing aspects of the first novel was its use of the woefully overused trick of having the central crime twist back on the investigator, such that it's finally revealed that the perpetrator has a personal beef with the officer doing the detecting. It's such a cliché and always rings false: how many cases in the average detective's life are really all about them? While this novel includes a breakthrough that comes somewhat close to home, it's not laid directly at Rebus' door, nor is it the key twist in the plot, so it doesn't detract from or weaken the novel.

In summary, a big step up from the first novel, and an easy and enjoyable read. It doesn't escape from the genre, but I'll be interested to see what Rankin tries with the later novels (of which there are another 15 to read!).

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