Brainy crime thriller “Standing in Another Man’s Grave” is a good place for unfamiliar readers to enter the long running series created by internationally best-selling author Ian Rankin. Detective John Rebus of Edinburgh first stepped up, prickly and incorruptible, in “Knots and Crosses.” After 20 years, an Edgar Award, a Gold Dagger and more acclaim, Rankin retired the gruff, grumpy, terminally non-conforming detective from active duty in “Exit Music.” Rebus finished his stint with “six pints, three shorts and half a bottle of wine,” and mercifully, no speeches.
However, like a bad penny, Rebus has turned up 40 pounds overweight, still unshaven, rumpled and crunching breath mints to cover his liquid lunch. More importantly, at the heartbeat of his noted career, he is still the copper who solves crimes. He does this much to the dismay of antagonistic younger professionals who follow all the rules and embrace new methodology, with comparatively lackluster results.
So, despite Rebus’ defiant practice of daily insubordination he is again being utilized. In the cold case squad, “No urgent cases required his attention: he worked with the long dead, murder victims forgotten by the world at large.” While technically a civilian without a warrant card, Rebus continues to demonstrate the superior authentic authority of experience and greater gifts over the designated authority of perfect suits, artificially whitened teeth and the promotion focused crime-solving tactics of his bosses.
The narrative begins as a woman whose daughter disappeared 14 years ago renews her pestering of police to listen to her story. Nina Hazlit insists that her daughter is the early first of a string of teenage girls who disappeared along the same stretch of highway, culminating in a very recent occurrence, the missing Annette McKie, step-daughter of a local crime boss.
Rebus, by chance, fields Hazlit’s latest call and intuitively agrees a connection is plausible. Rapidly he exploits a musty records search into an opportunity to join an active case. After once being dispatched to the shadows, his days marked by the funerals of his peers, now the cantankerous Rebus and his aging Saab start traveling the desolate landscape of Scotland’s A9 highway.
While hunting a killer, smoking and drinking as if time has stood still, he is joined by past protégé, detective inspector Siobhan Clarke, the perfect foil. While fully aware of Rebus’ shortcomings and the long-term damage he may do to Clarke’s career, she facilitates his efforts to ensure that the real bad guy ends up in jail.
Rebus is also hounded by an internal affairs nemesis, Malcolm Fox. Fox is particularly suspicious of and annoyed by Rebus’ habit of regular pub outings with a major crime figure, Big Ger Cafferty, a long-standing relationship from Rebus’ past.
Fox insists “I know a cop gone bad when I see one.” Through this complication, Rankin makes it clear that the issue here isn’t Rebus’ style but question his character. Abrasive, secretive and apparently unable to make nice with superiors, Rebus has never been - and will never be - mistaken for a team player.
When Rankin retired Rebus, he then wrote two well-received novels with Fox as a sympathetic protagonist. Incorporating a less sympathetic Fox into Rebus’ comeback probably honors continuity for long-term readers of the series. But, there are enough strands to the story line that figuring Fox into the mix seems a bit unnecessary.
As written, the story is sufficiently complicated by multiple locales, cooperating policing bodies, competing crime lords and confusing highways known only by numbers.
Towards the end of the novel, too little page time has been given to Rebus’ cold case squad peers, so that some of these characters are given pivotal moments that don’t quite seem justified. However, these critiques are minor. The twisted plot allows Rankin to showcase his mastery of pacing, dialogue and creating a sense of place. The overall effect of “Standing in Another Man’s Grave” is that of a serious, thoughtful, much deserved return of a beloved, savvy anti-hero.
Eventually, Rebus’ dogged, idiosyncratic persistence pushes authorities to take actions that result in finding the bodies of several dead girls. He also confirms that one girl is in self-imposed hiding, rather than dead. Following Rebus would certainly lead to the killer.
However, throughout the novel he is consistently warned to desist, shown the door and shut out of any decision-making. At one point, accused of being exhausted, hungover and not lucid, Rebus is dumped from a car by a frustrated detective-in-charge. This is a mistake.
While Rebus may have been reduced to trudging in the rain along the side of a busy arterial road, he eventually coerces the killer to walk alone into that same detective’s precinct house and confess. Old and new fans of this series will be grateful to learn that the mandatory retirement age for the Edinburgh police force has recently been raised and Rebus is considering re-entering the force, as long as Rankin can write him past the required physical.
Carolyn J. Kelly is a freelance writer and a Manhattan resident.