Back Bay Books, 432 pages, $15
I’m on a quest to read as many of the Edgar Best Novel and Best First Novel nominees as I can before the awards are announced on May 1. (http://www.theedgars.com/nominees.html, if you’re curious.)
Standing in Another Man’s Grave is Scottish author Ian Rankin’s twentieth book in his John Rebus series set in Edinburgh. That’s an impressive number in and of itself, but what is more spectacular is how good Rankin’s stories still are. Standing flows with humor, good pacing, interesting characters, and an obvious love of his home country.
At this point in the narrative, because of age requirements, Rebus has been retired as a DI with the Lothian and Borders Police. He’s picked up civilian work with the Cold Case Unit. Of course he is barely tolerated by his boss, an ambitious toady, but is on friendly terms with the other two retired detectives who have been rehired as civilians in the unit. For those of us who thought Rankin had tired of Rebus and drifted off to a new series — featuring the Scottish version of Internal Affairs, with a cross-the-t’s kind of character, Malcolm Fox (The Complaints, The Impossible Dead) — we had barely begun our mourning when Rebus was popping up again. He’s as complicated as ever.
A small thread through the book is Rebus’s application to rejoin the force, since the age of retirement was raised after he left. Malcolm Fox rises out of his own series to join this book as a more vigorous nemesis, as he struggles to prove that Rebus is a corner-cutting, criminal-loving reprobate and not worthy of being reinstated. At various points in Standing, Rebus sadly remembers he has no official warrant card to flash at and intimidate people. He misses the life. He has no hobbies, no interests outside of work, a distant relationship with his grown-up daughter, and much too much to drink and smoke.
Standing begins with a scene at the funeral of a fellow policeman. Rebus hates being there, because it reminds him that he teeters on the edge of his own grave. He encounters little reminders that life is ephemeral, including mishearing the lyrics to a song. “Standing in another man’s rain” becomes “standing in another man’s grave.” Luckily (for Rebus, not for the victim), a fresh murder gives him purpose.
Serendipity draws Nina Hazlitt to the CCU looking for a detective long retired from the department. He is her only connection to the case of her missing daughter, gone about thirteen years at that point. Rebus inherits her by default. She has brought a strange tale to him. She believes that her daughter was the first in a string of murders of several women along highway A9. Rebus is the perfect person to hear this. Her theory has been dismissed by other police, but Rebus sees the potential in her information. Plus, she’s attractive.
As Rebus draws together information from the missing person cold cases and muses about their relationship to a brand new MisPer, he interests more people who can act officially, including his old cohort Siobhan Clarke. Siobhan must choose between helping Rebus in his out-of-the-box way or toeing the line with her new crew.
Throw in characters like retired — yeah, right — crime boss Ger Cafferty, Siobhan’s boss James Page (Rebus nicknames him after various Led Zeppelin titles), and police computer whiz Christine Esson, and there’s something for everyone.
The real star of the show is still Rebus and this book showcases his never-ending battle with everyone else. Malcolm Fox has one thing right: Rebus does consort with criminals. But not because they are his friends. He loathes, despises, and abominates them and what they do, but they can be valuable assets if you work them right. And Rebus can work them right. There are lots of things Fox gets wrong, including the devotion Rebus has to bringing criminals to justice.
Rebus is not long in the tooth, and here’s an MBTB star to prove it.