Saturday, 29 January 2011

Sectarian premise

Back once more for another tour of Edinburgh's dark underbelly with Inspector Rebus' sixth outing, Mortal Causes.

Set against the backdrop of Edinburgh's annual arts festival, the novel opens with an murder in a vault off one of the city's ancient, subterranean streets. Elements of the murder, a brutal knee-capping ended with a headshot, remind Rebus of the punishment beatings he witnessed years earlier in Northern Ireland, and raises the spectre of terrorist activity spilling into the British mainland. Worse, when the victim is identified, he turns out to be no less than the son of "Big Ger" Cafferty, an Edinburgh kingpin with more than a passing interest in Rebus.

This apparent linkage of Edinburgh's criminal underworld with Northern Irish sectarianism leads to Rebus' secondment into a specialist crime squad with links to London's Special Branch. While this affords Rebus certain opportunities to advance the case, it also makes him the "new boy" in an already suspicious team. However, Rebus keeps a hand in with the investigations of old squad with help from his trusty underlings, DS Holmes and DS Clarke. Their work, together with information from Rebus' shady contacts in Edinburgh's criminal fraternity, leads to the unearthing of a connection to a seemingly defunct Scottish nationalist group, the Sword and Shield, that seems to have gained a new lease of life, one that involves the supply of weapons to Protestant "brothers" in Ulster. These developments lead Rebus to confront the sectarian elements of his own home town and, along the way, complicate his relationship with Big Ger.

It's already getting repetitive to say it, but with each novel Rankin is getting more and more sure-footed with Rebus, and Mortal Causes is definitely the high point to date. While tantalisingly labyrinthine, the plot uncoils effortlessly, with a nice number and balance of slowly interconnecting threads. By now, Rankin has established his roster of characters well enough that they need no introductions, and appear satisfyingly well-rounded because of the "baggage" carried over from earlier titles. Even sporadic characters such as Rebus' stuffy superior, 'Farmer' Watson, have become amiably familiar figures for whom even brief appearances now convey far more than the bare words might suggest.

One particularly interesting aspect of this novel for me was its extensive coverage of sectarianism in Scotland. In what now seems surprising to me, growing up there I was almost completely unaware of this side of Scottish life. Part of this can probably be attributed to me being on the east coast, and in a town where Catholics were too thin on the ground to inspire any comment (not, of course, that the absence of non-white people led to any corresponding drop-off in racism). Until I was well into my teens, all I knew about Catholics was that they were exactly the same as everyone else but went to a different church for Christmas and Easter services. Subsequently, I became a lot more aware of how divisive Catholicism is for a section of Scotland's Protestant population, including, as it happens, my Bothwell-residing "Uncle" Willy. But by the time I came to first came to grips with this nonsense, I was already irredeemably dismissive of all such sectarian splits. And having now been in England for years, where such divisions seem even less noticeable than in Carnoustie, it all seems even more distant and irrelevant. So the novel was quite an interesting reminder of aspects of Scotland that, while diminished, haven't yet entirely withered.

Anyway, I'm now up to number 6 of the series, so slightly passed the third stage. Though only in terms of novels that is, by page count I'm nowhere near - they just get thicker and thicker!

No comments: