Little, Brown and Co., 320 pages, $27
“Rather Be the Devil” is probably the twentieth novel in the DI John Rebus canon. I say “probably,” because some of you might count novellas, a confusing distinction from “novels” at times. Nevertheless, Scotsman Ian Rankin has been writing a long time, and John Rebus has popped up across the decades with one entertaining adventure after another.
There was a pall hanging over this work, just as there is a shadow hanging over the lung of John Rebus, retired detective inspector; former colleague of Siobhan Clarke, still with the ill-reformed Scottish police bureau; former adversary and now friend of Malcom Fox, late of internal affairs and the murder squad, and currently newboy at the Gartcosh amalgamated crime fighting headquarters. You are meant to wonder if this is Rebus’ last hurrah. If so, he is going out in style, with a gem of a cold case (reminiscent of his time on the cold case squad), a criminal gang matter (starring an old adversary/odd boon companion), and bringing in his old mates, Clarke and Fox. There is a sense of finality implicit in the rounding up of these elements.
There is also a satisfying complexity and roundness to the crimes: a mugged crime boss, a murdered ex-colleague, a disappeared financier, a strangled beauty, and the ever-popular combination of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.
Although Rebus is retired, working crimes is second nature to him. This old dog still wants to hunt. At first reluctant to work with each other, let alone with the buttinsky Rebus, Clarke and Fox join forces to find out who clobbered local mob boss Daryl Christie. Factoring in the reluctance of people on the wrong side of the law to help the law help them, it’s a long haul for Clarke and Fox to even come up with a list of suspects. Big Ger Cafferty is on that list. He has a love/hate relationship with Rebus, who simultaneously respects, tolerates, and vilifies Cafferty. But Rebus is never complacent where Cafferty is concerned.
Mostly the result of having too much time on his hands, Rebus begins a cold case investigation of the decades-old murder of Maria Turquand, a young, flighty, upper-class beauty, in a room at the iconic Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh. Many of the major players are still alive, including her reclusive husband, unfaithful lover, and former one-night stands. In a strange way very common in crime novels, a link pops up between the cold case and the current crimes and misdemeanors. Robert Chatham, the ex-cop who last reviewed Turquand’s case, is now a bouncer in the club owned by the crime boss who has been coshed. When ill tidings befall Chatham after he talked to Rebus, it’s a toss-up whether it is because of Turquand’s or Christie’s case.
Rebus, ever his own man, inserts himself into official investigations. His humor is wry, his charm is rough, his talk is mostly blunt, albeit often evasive. This proves to be a gem of a case for a man who might be walking into a sunset.