26 December 2016

Review - Rather be the Devil

Image from www.ianrankin.net
Rather be the Devil
Ian rankin
Orion, 3 November 2016
HB, 310pp

Source: bought from Goldsboro Books.

This is, I think, the 21st outing for John Rebus. I've been reading these since Black and Blue in 1997 (I found Rebus when a short story appeared in my university alumnus mag - how's that for convoluted book discovery?)

One of the things I enjoy is that Rankin is never afraid to keep the mood fresh by shifting Rebus around. He's been a muscly ex-Army action man, albeit beset by traumatic memories. he's been a divorced cop missing his kid and resenting he ex-wife's new partner. He's gone through books constantly living musical references. He's, increasingly, been the maverick on the CID team, marginalised and distrusted. And for a time, the books were less about him than the ensemble as Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox came on the scene. Indeed for a time it seemed as though they might take over - I'd have welcomed a series of books about Clarke, in particular.

Now, though, in another shift, Rebus seems to be centre stage again despite now being definitively out of the police (he was back in for a couple of years but has finally retired). So he's a spare part, a loose cannon, still investigating crime but with no official standing. That means, at time, Rankin needs to stretch things a bit in order to allow him to play a part - I suspect the access he gets here is pretty implausible, really. But the story is saved from being unbelievable by, of all things, a (real) change in the structure and organisation of the Scottish police. It seems that the separate forces have been combined, with everything now coming under the control of the Strathclyde (Glasgow) force, who parachute their own in to investigate anything interesting. So Clarke is just as much out in the cold as Rebus: and Fox, who's been promoted to the shiny new "crime campus" but assigned back to Edinburgh to keep an eye on things is, again, resented as an outsider.

So it's three misfits who team up for this book. And that seems wholly right and proper for a Rebus case. It hardly matters what the case is: once the slightly awkward setup in the first third of the book is done with, we can sit back and enjoy the banter and the friction between these perfectly realised characters.

There's more, of course: a romance for Rebus (I hope and pray it will last), renewed friction between old school villain Cafferty and Darryl Christie, a long- forgotten murder in the Caley Hotel that Rebus can't let go of, and a health scare. To a degree the book - especially that first part - has an elegaic quality, a sense that the past is being put to bed, whether it's Rebus's buccaneering days, the culture and organisation of the Edinburgh police or the crime syndicates of yore. (And with that shadow on the lung, it could be Rubus himself...)

But that doesn't prevent action, and just because things have their roots in the past, who's to say they can't - to mix metaphors - erupt in the present? I found the final two thirds of this book, and especially the climax, as exciting as any of the Rebus novels and indeed perhaps more so than the last few. Rebus may get out of breath climbing a few flights of stairs, and he may have to cadge his way into the CID suite, but he's as as sharp and sly as ever.

And these books are as sharp and sly and entertaining as ever.

Strongly recommended.


  1. What a list David - plenty on there that I'd love to read. You should read The House of Shattered Wings - very different. I'll be in touch soon re Shiny. All the best for 2017.

  2. Annabel

    It's just finding the time! I could do a post as long just covering the books I bought last year and haven't read (yet). But Shattered Wings is high on my "catch up" list.

    Will look forward to contributing to SNB in 2017!