I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh-based detective John Rebus. I love his grumpiness as much as I love the way he latches on to solving a crime, a kind of cross between a detective and a terrier, working at a murder case late into the night while spinning old vinyl on his turntable or nursing a pint of IPA at his favorite pub, the Oxford Bar.
I love the way he paces the streets of his hometown and feels slightly out place anywhere else, especially Glasgow. And I love the tightly knit relationship he’s developed with his sidekick, Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke: the palpable trust, respect, and knowing banter between the two of them is one of the unalloyed pleasures of this classic series of contemporary police procedural.
In “Saints of the Shadow Bible,’’ Rebus and his by-career-default nemesis, Internal Affairs officer Malcolm Fox, tentatively bond over a long-ago case that’s been reopened by an ambitious solicitor general.
To Rebus’s dismay, the investigation casts new light on his early days on the force: He was part of a squad that could do no wrong, especially when meting out justice or extracting confessions.
Three decades later, Rebus and his former colleagues are under the microscope over a case of possible murder that fell apart in court. Complicating matters is a clutch of additional political and emotional headaches including one colleague’s high-profile status, the sudden death of an old police informant, and the presence of one of Rebus’s old flames.
“No skeletons in your cupboard, John?” someone chuckles at Rebus as the suspicions pile up. “You’d need a space the size of IKEA to store them all.’’
Rebus shines with his quiet competence and idiosyncrasies, still living on his diet of bacon, cigarettes, and whisky, proudly using B.B. King as his ringtone, and generating unfettered admiration from a younger generation of police officers:
“[DC Christine Esson] hadn’t known John Rebus long, but she knew he was good at this, like a bloodhound given a scent and then left to do what it was best at. Form-filling and protocols and budget meetings were not Rebus’s thing — never had been and never would be. His knowledge of the Internet was rudimentary and his people skills were woeful. But she would lie for him . . . and take the rap if caught. Because he was a breed of cop that wasn’t supposed to exist any more, a rare and endangered species.’’
The novel’s structure and telling details showcase the quality of Rankin’s writing.
The main story is bookended by tension-filled incidents that reveal just how discomfortingly Rebus straddles his by-the-book vs. going-rogue approaches to police work. There’s a barely-there dialogue between Rebus and a club bouncer-cum-drug dealer, a scene that captures the essence of a Rebus novel at its most specific and elemental: brief and to the point, but full of significant sound and fury. In one revelatory encounter with a baddie, Rebus displays an uncharacteristic moment of vulnerability that he endures with surprising restraint. During another, we are reminded that our hero is not above pretending to contribute to a coffee money jar, surreptitiously returning his coins to his pocket.
Most of all, there’s real joy in watching Fox and Rebus dance around each other, acknowledging a burgeoning respectful rapport in spite of themselves, while the ace Siobhan Clarke — more please, Mr. Rankin! — shoulders new responsibilities.
These aspects whet the appetite for future Rebus-Clarke adventures, though they may take a while to appear. Rankin says he will be taking a break for a bit — “Saints’’ is the 19th Rebus novel — a perfect opportunity to revisit or familiarize yourself with his back catalog. Whether you begin with “Knots and Crosses,” Rebus’s 1987 debut, or with 1997’s more complex and layered “Black and Blue,” I’m willing to bet a wee dram of Highland Park whisky that you’ll find John Rebus as thoroughly addictive as I do.