Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin review – a satisfying return for Rebus

The rumpled detective is back in a twisty, darkly topical and immaculately executed tale of Edinburgh’s underbelly

Rebus is back – and this time he’s grumpy. During our last encounter with the boozed-up, cantankerous and much-loved Edinburgh detective, he was brought out of retirement, demoted and retired again, but John Rebus is too much of a national treasure to be shelved for long. If he were real, we might find him stomping his way around the ballroom in Strictly Come Dancing or knocking back witchetty grubs on I’m a Celebrity. As it is, we shall have to content ourselves with reading about him in this, Ian Rankin’s 20th Rebus novel (the complete Rebus short stories – all 29 of them – were collected together in last year’s compendium The Beat Goes On).

In Even Dogs in the Wild, Rebus is dragged out of retirement – again – to act in the semi-official capacity of consultant detective, assisting in the investigation of a shooting at the house of another retired geezer, long-time foe “Big Ger” Cafferty. Meanwhile, Rankin’s more recent creation, DI Malcolm Fox, is assigned to keep an eye on investigators from Glasgow, who are monitoring the arrival in the capital of Glaswegian gangsters Joe and Dennis Stark, père et fils, who seem intent on kicking off a turf war with their Edinburgh counterparts.

In another part of the newly constituted Police Scotland HQ, former Rebus sidekick DI Siobhan Clarke is investigating the murder of David Minton, Scotland’s senior prosecutor. How these events are connected is the subject of Rankin’s twisty, darkly topical and immaculately executed tale of Edinburgh’s underbelly.

Once again, Rankin delivers all the elements that have brought him such a wide audience: playful dialogue, peppered with tangy banter and beefy put-downs, satisfying plot switchbacks, the dark, brooding setting of Edinburgh, and a strong thematic coherence. Plus musical references, as you’d expect, including the title, from an Associates song about parents failing to protect their offspring.

Rankin (pictured) didn’t get to be one of Britain’s bestselling crime novelists without knowing that tales of bad men offing one another would quickly flatline without a heart. Here, the ticker is kept ticking by the friction between Fox, characterised by his colleague as a “soulless, spiritless middle manager from the most boring company on the planet”, and the older Rebus.

You’ll have guessed by now that Even Dogs… is a novel about the ragged bonds, vampirism, rivalry and unholy alliances between fathers and sons (a rivalry not coincidentally reflected in the tension between elegant, patrician and occasionally complacent Edinburgh and roiling, edgy, chaotic Glasgow). Though Rebus doesn’t have a son, Fox makes for a good stand-in, and the dual – and duelling – nature of the father-son relationship, at once both competitive and protective, is played out in the novel in part by rivalry between Fox and Rebus, and in part by the arrival of a stray dog, which serves to bring out Rebus’s more tender impulses.

Rankin is an amiably blokey writer, his Rebus an intensely romanticised, self-dramatising lone wolf, a kind of urban cowboy driven to detection as a means of resolving his existential crisis. As Rebus himself puts it, if justice didn’t matter, “then neither did he”. The idea of justice as an extension of the male ego might sit uneasily in an era when the old tropes of masculinity are being questioned, but Rebus survives as a lovable and reliable relic. And if the novel is a reminder that there is more life in old dogs than young pups might imagine, it will be interesting to see how Rankin continues to involve Rebus in future books. It’s hard to think of a fictional Edinburgh – leastwise the one conceived by Rankin – without him. But for now, this taut, dark and expertly crafted tale has plenty to satisfy the most exacting Rebus fan.

• Melanie McGrath’s White Heat is published by Mantle. To order a copy of Even Dogs in the Wild for £15.99 (RRP £19.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.


Melanie McGrath

The GuardianTramp

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