The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin – review

In the return of Ian Rankin's post-Rebus detective, the complex Inspector Fox displays a quiet gift for objective scrutiny

Book two in Ian Rankin's post-Rebus series of procedurals continues the job, begun in 2009's The Complaints, of breaking in the reader. Or rather, if you're one of those Rebus fans disappointed by his successor, Inspector Malcolm Fox, consoling you for your loss in a way that says, ever so gently: "This is where I am now – deal with it."

I must say, Fox works for me. Divorced and in his mid-40s, he's quieter than Rebus and warier of confrontation, but no less complex. Too many people see what they want to see. A concomitant of Fox's gift for objective scrutiny is that he sees himself clearly. To this end he stays alert, preferring Appletiser to alcohol, refusing to waste energy on such niceties as the preparation of nutritious food. He's old-school scrupulous – the kind of man who worries he might have taken advantage of a woman by sleeping with her when she was slightly drunk and he wasn't.

Yet his essential decency has made him an outsider in the force, hence his consignment to the internal affairs team whose fate it is to be despised and insulted to their faces and behind their backs as that "merry band of fuck-ups". Fox's desperation to be seen as a proper policeman is a weakness his enemies exploit. It's also what spurs him on.

The novel opens with Edinburgh-based Fox and his colleagues Kaye and Naysmith arriving in Fife to investigate whether a detective, Paul Carter, was protected by his colleagues after a sexual assault charge. Carter was shopped by his own uncle, an ex-cop. But when the older man is found dead and surrounded by papers relating to a cold case from the mid-80s – the death in a car crash of a lawyer called Francis Vernal – Fox wonders if Carter might be guilty of something worse than lechery.

And what of Vernal? He was notorious for his involvement with radical Scottish separatist groups, especially the Dark Harvest Commando, who took samples of contaminated soil from the Hebridean island of Gruinard, used for anthrax weapon testing during the second world war, and sent them to government offices. As Fox pursues his hunches, a new generation of nationalists plan their own spectacular.

"Polaris and acid rain," muses Kaye at one point. "Seems like ancient history." He's been researching the early 80s, when Scottish nationalists looked to Ireland for inspiration and nuclear fear hung over the UK. "I really got into it," he tells Fox. "Even found some clips of a TV show – Edge of Darkness." Even without this nudge, it's obvious The Impossible Dead is a homage to Troy Kennedy Martin's peerless 1985 drama about the anti-nuclear movement. Edge of Darkness was portentous but plausible, only going off the rails in the final episode when it decided to turn into a Bond film. Frustratingly, The Impossible Dead makes the same mistake, squandering its amassed gravitas with a tidy but frankly Scooby Doo ending.

Until then, though, it's excellent, not least on the level of technique. One of the joys of Rankin is his sixth sense for when the reader needs a recap, an empathy that extends to his treatment of his characters: the relationship between Fox, his damaged sister Jude and elderly father is depicted with care and tenderness.

So doubters be damned: The Impossible Dead is taut, compulsive and hugely satisfying, with plenty to say about the limits of memory and the dangers of historical idealism. If this is where Rankin is now, I'm not sure I want him to be anywhere else.


John O'Connell

The GuardianTramp

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