Monday, June 01, 2020

the last book I read


Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin.

Meet Detective Inspector John Rebus. He's a maverick cop, wha doesnae play bi the book, but, God dammit, he gets results. Let's just run through the items on our clipboard briefly, shall we: maverick, yes, troubled relationship and occasional conflict with superiors, yes (but, you know, results and that), borderline alcoholic, check, troubled relationship with various past and current women friends (but, at the same time, mysteriously irresistible to women in a rumpled yet maverick kind of way), check. And, most importantly of all, a sort of mystical ability to sniff out the truth no matter how tortuous the case (and, thereby, get results).

So when a young man is murdered down in the subterranean chambers of Mary King's Close in Edinburgh's Old Town it's Rebus who gets the call. And his suspicions of something a bit rum going on are aroused when he sees the pattern of injuries on the body: shot in both kneecaps before the final shot to the head. Punishment of this sort (with or without the final fatal coup de grace) is highly characteristic of sectarian conflicts in Northern Ireland, and Scotland has its share of that sort of stuff on a day-to-day basis as well (though usually without anyone getting kneecapped). Furthermore the victim has a rudimentary tattoo denoting his allegiance to a loyalist paramilitary group.

So Rebus is concerned about the murder being a precursor to further acts of sectarian violence, a concern heightened by the timing: it's the middle of the Edinburgh Festival and the city is heaving with tourists. Obviously the first thing to do is establish the identity of the victim, and this has a surprise in store for Rebus as well: the young man, Billy Cunningham, turns out to be the son of Big Ger Cafferty, a local crime boss put away by Rebus some time before and something of a recurring Moriarty to Rebus' Holmes in this series of novels. But does Cafferty know anything about what's been going on? After all, he has some previous involvement with crime on behalf of the UVF

As if that were not enough for Rebus to be worrying about, he has some problems with the ladies: his current partner Patience Aitken, a doctor, is occasionally grumbly about his being married to his job and inclined to bail out on dinner party arrangements at the last minute to go and get beaten up in a warehouse or something. Not only that but some low-level flirty activity with local lawyer Caroline Rattray has led her to go all bunny-boiler on his ass and, at one point, attack him with a can of spray paint.

With all this to worry about it's a wonder that Rebus manages to crack the case, one involving arms-running between Northern Ireland and Scotland, various bent cops including one of Rebus' immediate superiors, and Billy being involved in some computer hacking to get hold of a list of names of secret loyalists and threatening to make it public, whereupon it became apparent that he Knew Too Much and needed to be Rubbed Out. It's not quite as neat as that, though, as one local ne'er-do-well, not particularly interested in any of the niceties of sectarian disputes but well keen on the old ultraviolence, gets hold of a stash of Semtex and threatens to set it off in central Edinburgh at the height of the Festival. Will Rebus be able to chase him down in the crowd and stop him from detonating the bomb? SPOILER ALERT: yes. 

This is the first Rebus novel to appear on this list, and the first Ian Rankin novel originally published under his own name, the slightly more thick-ear thriller Blood Hunt being initially published under his Jack Harvey pseudonym. Interestingly, Mortal Causes (which is the sixth in the Rebus series which now numbers twenty-odd) and Blood Hunt were successive entries in Rankin's oeuvre, in 1994 and 1995 respectively. As I said there, Black & Blue is the only other Rebus I can swear to having read, although couldn't say for sure I might not have read one or two more. It's easy to mock the maverick cop clich├ęs, but these are tight, efficient, enjoyable thrillers with an interesting leading character, and they evoke a strong sense of place in the same way that Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen novels do (a different place, though, obviously). If you're specifically setting out to read all of them then it'd probably be better to do it in order, but otherwise I wouldn't worry about just dipping in wherever you like. 

The only thing that bothers me a bit about Rebus is his name: it's just a bit too arch for my liking. I know there's supposed to be some sort of Polish back-story which might account for it, but, honestly, you might as well just call him Sherlock Enigma and be done with it. 

As it happens I have been to both the Edinburgh Festival (back in about 1999) and Mary King's Close, I think on this trip in 2009, although I don't seem to have any photos and the accompanying blog post doesn't mention it. I daresay if we'd encountered a mutilated corpse then that might have warranted a mention.

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