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.


John Dugdale

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Bond and Smiley should be retired: it's time for working-class spy fiction
Since the genre’s inception, its heroes have usually been privileged types. Less well-connected heroes would make better novels and wouldn’t go amiss in real life

HB Lyle

11, May, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Guardian readers' comfort library
Jane Austen rubs shoulders with Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett sits next to Harry Potter in the great self-help archive assembled by our contributors

Claire Armitstead and Guardian readers

19, Nov, 2015 @7:22 AM

Article image
Crime's grand tour: European detective fiction

Crime fiction is a magnifying glass that reveals the fingerprints of history. From Holmes and Poirot to Montalbano and the rise of Scandi-noir, Mark Lawson investigates the long tradition of European super-sleuths and their role in turbulent times

Mark Lawson

26, Oct, 2012 @9:58 PM

Article image
To be continued … the grand tradition of prequels and sequels

Elizabeth Bennet has been reimagined as a lesbian, a cannibal and a serial killer. James Bond and Sherlock Holmes have had countless reincarnations. Now Long John Silver has made a comeback. This is part of a long tradition, argues Mark Lawson

Mark Lawson

09, Mar, 2012 @10:46 PM

Article image
Christmas gifts 2012: the best audiobooks
Sue Arnold listens to Bond, not bonking

Sue Arnold

30, Nov, 2012 @10:55 PM

Article image
Happier ever after? JK Rowling’s Casual Vacancy joins league of rewritten stories
As the BBC gives Rowling’s novel an upbeat ending, we look at other rewrites, from The Little Mermaid to A Clockwork Orange

Alison Flood

10, Feb, 2015 @4:10 PM

Article image
Books about town: find London's literary benches and share your photos
London has become a literary playground: a project by the National Literacy Trust has scattered 50 book-shaped benches across the capital for the summer, each dedicated to an iconic author or character. Will you help us find them?

Marta Bausells and Guardian readers

02, Jul, 2014 @9:55 AM

Article image
What's your favourite Scottish novel? Is it one of these?
The broadcaster is putting 30 books chosen by an expert panel to a public vote to find Scotland’s favourite book. Let us know what you make of the selection

Alison Flood

01, Aug, 2016 @1:53 PM

Article image
Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song voted Scotland's favourite novel
The 1932 elegy to crofting sees off contemporary stars including Iain Banks, Irvine Welsh and JK Rowling in BBC poll

Alison Flood

18, Oct, 2016 @3:42 PM

Article image
English literature's 50 key moments from Marlowe to JK Rowling
What have been the hinge points in the evolution of Anglo-American literature? Here's a provisional, partisan list

Robert McCrum

04, Feb, 2013 @12:30 PM