Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin review – Rebus is on the case and off the cigarettes

Sparks fly as Rankin’s much-loved detective tackles an unsolved murder from the 1970s

A recent editorial in the Oldie bemoaned the fact that this book heralds a turning point for John Rebus that Philip Marlowe would never have countenanced – his giving up smoking. The full horror is made explicit in the painful opening chapter when Rebus, seven days off the fags and screaming inside for one last, lingering smooch with his smoky siren, receives instead a specimen jar containing a diseased lung from his pathologist girlfriend Deborah Quant. She is unaware of the results he is waiting on after an x-ray that he refers to, with typical morbid wit, as Hank Marvin. Shadows and time are the big themes that weave through this novel.

Still wrestling with the notion of retirement, Rebus attempts to distract himself by taking Quant for a meal at the Caledonian Hotel – the location of an unsolved murder. Here, in 1978, Maria Turquand was strangled as she awaited a liaison with a faithless lover. At the same time, local rock star Bruce Collier was visiting the hotel to play a gig with his band, Blacksmith. Collier’s return to Edinburgh – and his residence close to the scene of the crime – has spurred Rebus’s choice of venue, and he borrows the cold case file from his former workmate, DI Siobhan Clarke. She in turn needs advice on another matter of historical weight: gangland upstart Darryl Christie has been beaten unconscious on his doorstep and it’s whispered on the street that “Big Ger” Cafferty is behind it.

Christie has been under observation by HMRC, which is how DI Malcolm Fox, newly transferred to the Scottish Crime Campus at Gartcosh, finds himself also back in Edinburgh, gatecrashing Clarke’s case. The three former colleagues form an uneasy alliance, which events rapidly strengthen. An alcoholic known for confessing to crimes he didn’t commit cops for the Christie beating and provides accurate details held back from the press. A link is discovered between Christie and Anthony Brough, scion of the elite banking family for whom Turquand’s much cuckolded husband was working at the time of her death. A smug Big Ger offers Rebus cryptic clues. “Look for a Russian,” he says.

Rankin has spent nearly three decades in the company of Rebus, about 10 years longer than Chandler with Marlowe, and this relationship shows no sign of medical emergency. Following novels establishing the characters of Clarke and Fox alongside Rebus and his archenemy, Big Ger, the more recent cast members now feel as credible as Rebus himself and the sparks of their interaction create an atmosphere as rich as the plot, boding well for the future.

Rankin neatly compares the rock star excesses of the 70s to the outrages of today’s financial larcenists, while Rebus gets to kick serious bankster arse, his rage finely honed by the absence of cigarettes. Though it moves at pace, what makes this tale so deeply satisfying is that its protagonists have had time and space to develop. Rebus’s input serves to highlight the benefits of  age, experience and keeping a sense of community.

So will the author really allow “Hank Marvin” to bring down a creation at the height of his powers? That would be telling. Though, he still has another decade to go to match Conan Doyle and Holmes …

• Cathi Unsworth’s Without the Moon is published by Serpent’s Tail. Rather Be the Devil is published by Orion. To order a copy for £16.39 (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.


Cathi Unsworth

The GuardianTramp

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