Characters brought back from the brink

Ian Rankin has announced the revival of Rebus. Other authors who breathed new life into old heroes include Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming, John Updike, Anthony Burgess and even John le Carré

The title of Ian Rankin's well-received 2007 novel Exit Music could scarcely have been any clearer, identifying it as the final case of his writing hero DI John Rebus. Yet reviewers noted that the book conspicuously left open the possibility of the return of Rebus, who had quit sleuthing on reaching retirement age rather than being killed off (unlike Sherlock Holmes, whom Arthur Conan Doyle murdered by plunging him down the Reichenbach Falls in "The Final Problem"). And this week Rankin announced a new novel featuring the dyspeptic Edinburgh detective, due in November.

In creative terms, the omens can't be said to be good. Public demand compelled Doyle to resuscitate Holmes after a 10-year break, awkwardly revealing he had not died at the Falls. The first two outings after his time out, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Return of Sherlock Holmes, are as good as anything that came before them; but later collections and the rambling, implausible novel The Valley of Fear have had tellingly little appeal for film and TV adapters.

Subsequent authors on the genre fiction treadmill have similarly found saying goodbye for good impossible. The much-admired but over-productive US crime writer Michael Connelly brought his Californian homicide cop Harry Bosch back from retirement, reportedly at the behest of the head of the LAPD, but without revitalising his writing.

James Bond underwent near-death at the end of From Russia with Love, as an already weary Ian Fleming gave himself the option of terminating 007; deciding to let him survive Rosa Klebb's poisoned shoe made the movie franchise possible (the next novel, Dr No, became the first canonical film), but the consensus among buffs is that From Russia with Love is the last great Bond novel.

Literary authors, too, can't resist the urge to stage reunions with characters they consigned to death or oblivion. But when mighty ones do – Joseph Heller bringing back Catch-22's Yossarian in Closing Time, Anthony Burgess's Enderby's Dark Lady, or No End to Enderby, John Updike's swansong The Widows of Eastwick – the sorrrowful reviews write themselves.

Even Shakespeare succumbed (though reputedly in response to a royal command), reviving Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor at the price of his only mediocre mid-period comedy; asking for even more suspension of disbelief than Conan Doyle in transposing the fat sot (who had died offstage in Henry V) from medieval to Tudor England, not only back from the dead but pursuing adulterous romps when presumably aged at least 200.

Explaining the character's return is often tricky and colours the comeback effort with implausibility from the outset; and the fatigue that prompted retiring or liquidating the hero doesn't magically evaporate (toiling grumpily to concoct post-Falls Holmes tales, Conan Doyle wrote that he still felt an "intense disinclination to continue these stories … It is impossible to prevent a certain sameness and want of freedom").

And yet. And yet. There is one example of a pensioned-off hero that ought to give Rankin encouragement. George Smiley is rarely not retired from MI6, even in his earliest appearances; and John le Carré seemed to have retired him from his fiction too by the mid-60s. But he was restored to centrality in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 1974, as a dusted-off representative of an older generation investigating younger spooks – and that novel's TV-assisted success rebooted its author's career, turning him from an apparently fading figure known for one hit into the revered doyen of spy fiction he is today.

Contributor

John Dugdale

The GuardianTramp

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