Let me say at the outset that I am high on Rankin. I have read most of Rankin’s Rebus novels and enjoyed near every page. If you love British mysteries, he’s a dead cert. You can’t go wrong if you start with „Black&Blue“, winner of the prestigious Macallan Gold Dagger Award for Fiction (Best Mystery as awarded by the Crime Writers Association of Britain). This book is as good a place as any to get introduced with his „hard man“, the majestic DI John Rebus. I believe this is one of the best of the assortment I’ve read.
John Rebus is a complex character, a person you do not cross; who both drinks and smokes too much for his own good, is divorced, a man who is on the borderline to know how to take care of himself. Inspector Rebus is unquestionably a hard man. DI Rebus is driven by Calvinist guilt, fuelled by whisky, ciggies and pop music and is willing, even eager, to cut corners and push boundaries in his pursuit of a pretty harsh justice. The central character in these series of fiction novels by Scots author Ian Rankin is an ex Special Air Services operative, invalided out of the army after suffering a nervous breakdown, and then becoming a detective in the Capital of Scotland, Edinburgh. But not in an Edinburgh that would be known to those who have vacationed there. It is set in the dark underbelly of the city.
Now Rebus catches the case of an oil-rig worker, who came gruesomely to death. Don’t ask him why, but Rebus senses a connection between this murder in Edinburgh and the Godfatherlike manoeuvres of a mobster in Glasgow. Along the way, bent cops in Aberdeen suspect Rebus of being Johnny Bible, the copycat killer who started imitating the murder pattern of Bible John (a true life killer) who terrified Scotland in the late 60’s.
Rebus is reaching a crisis while tracking these two serial killers and is involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse. First, he’s been transferred to a backwater division in the wake of the fallout from his last case and his first investigation there seems to tie into both the North Sea oil industry and the mobs. Second, an old case where he and his mentor played fast and loose with the rules has been reopened. Third, Rebus seems obsessed by both killers and manages to get himself into serious trouble by annoying superior officers in three different cities at the same time. Superiors who are not painted as modern and forward thinking.
Rebus really outdoes himself in this book. He reacts erratically, and because of this seems all the more human. He doesn’t give a toss about procedure, he is insubordinate, he constantly walks a tightrope between being fired and being let off the hook. Part of the trouble even goes as far as becoming a suspect in his own investigation. The overwhelming confluence of events threatens to swamp him. Yet Rebus is a believable character and you get so engrossed in the story you almost feel you are standing there watching things unravel before your eyes. I was gripped from the moment I picked this book, and despite promising myself that I would make it last by reading just a few chapters a day, I soon found I had devoured the whole book. Who wouldn’t love a borderline alcoholic detective whose conscience won’t let him rest? He’s certainly not the brilliant hero who never does anything wrong. He’s not a bitter drunkard, not a misogynistic bastard but silently heroic compared to every other character in the book.
But be warned: the book doesn’t come easy. Some might say, in „Black and Blue“ Ian Rankin was just a little too ambitious. Not only is there a labyrinth of plots and interesting scenes like the one on a North Sea oil-rig. Rebus is flitting in and out of three cities and three cop shops, there is an awful lot of characters, particularly coppers, milling about. It takes a lot of traveling time and clues for Rebus to work all the information he gathers into a coherent pattern. And for the reader, I may add. You will occasionally get confused among them all.
For me Rankin somehow manages to juggle all these plates spinning in a really superior way. John Rebus’s fans will be satisfied with „Black and Blue“, as everything I’ve come to love about him is here in spades. You’ll have to develop some of John Rebus’s stubborness and tenacity as it takes some time until he gets to any real action in this book. The plotting is superb; it’s complicated but rewarding to stick with. Rankin has an uncanny ability to interweave the plot, keeps us guessing, and is always surprising us. This is a Rebus novel with more twists and red herrings than you can count and yet it maintains feasibility. Ian Rankin can surely write, the dialogues are realistic, packed with humour and come with the precision of a chess master. He stirs his hot pot of confused leads, unholy alliances, dirty cops, and painstakingly slow progresses to a perfect serving.
Enjoy! I did.
It really is a beast of a book, weighting in at just under 500 pages but that length never feels unjustified.