Ian Rankin is the brightest star in the Scottish crime fiction firmament. His Rebus novels already have the aura of genre classics about them. He is often to be found on British TV these days, commenting on everything from politics to art and literature; and seems like a balanced, well-informed and sagely character. I've wanted to read something by him for a long time, but the Rebus series was daunting in its length and threw up a familiar dilemma. Should I start with the first book, written back in the 1980s when Rankin was a rookie, or one of the more recent critically acclaimed installments? If I started further along in the series I would miss subtleties of character and back-story; but if I started at the beginning I would have to read half a dozen novels to get into the rhythm of Rebus. Impasse.
Then I read a review for Rankin's newest book The Impossible Dead and realised it was the second in a fresh series featuring a new detective, Malcolm Fox. Fox is, in many ways, the antithesis of Rebus: he doesn't drink, he lives a quiet, neat life and he works in the Complaints and Conduct division, investigating police corruption. The perfect solution! I could start a series at the beginning, before it had really established itself, but still get a handle on Rankin's mature style. Impasse overcome. So I duly purchased The Complaints for my Kindle and embarked.
That was almost a month and half ago, and I finally finished the book this morning. It would be an understatement to say I found it hard going. This often seems to be the case for me with crime fiction. I'm interested for the first quarter of the novel while the characters and the scenario are established; but once the mechanisms of the plot start to shunt and whirr and take over I rapidly loose interest. The problem being, I think, that I'm not all that interested who dunnit. I can live without knowing who the murderer/blackmailer/bad cop is, and I feel that the race to discover them gets in the way of the good stuff. I realise this is My Problem and that it gets in the way of my writing in a balanced, fair way about the reading experience (which certainly wasn't all bad). In an attempt to counteract my negative bias, I've drawn up a bald list of things I did and didn't like rather than embarked on a critical rant. Fair is fair.
And so I liked:
- The backdrop of Edinburgh in 2008, with the financial crisis just beginning and the city's transport infrastructure in chaos because of the installation of the new tramways. It made for a touchy, edgy backdrop to the police corruption shenanigans and I enjoyed the way Rankin used it to shape the action, making his characters adapt to get around it.
- The fastidiousness of Malcolm Fox, who notices little things about people. The early part of the book was dominated for me by his observations of people's clothing, and voyeuristic accounts of what they ate and drank, when and how much. Even in the final tense scenes of the book there is almost a page long dialogue about what two characters would like to drink: whisky or tea? This formed the core of Malcolm's character for me: a details man, an observer, a cataloguer, not a do-er.
- The book shelf sub-plot, wherein Malcolm spends the whole of the book trying to rearrange his books. At the beginning of the novel, when all the drama is starting to ramp up, Fox decides to re-order his shelves, and removes all the books into piles on the floor. They then sit there throughout the novel, occasionally getting reconfigured into new piles while the shelves remain empty. Only as Fox gains clarity on his case does he put first one book and then several back. I thought this was a nice comment on his mental state and thought processes, but also a pretty analogy for Rankin. He metaphorically removes all his previous books from the shelves, clearing out Rebus, and only as his new series takes shape does he start to reassemble his ouevre.
- The blossoming relationship between Fox and Jamie Breck, an officer under investigation for paedophilia who is drawn into the maelstrom of Fox's investigation into Edinburgh property magnate Charles Brogan. A bromance if ever there was one, as the pair tease and banter their way to the denouement. Late in the book Fox suggests to another officer that he and Breck were set up, that they were brought into each others' orbit because their compatability was obvious. Fox would see things in Breck that he lacked - youth, creativity, reckless courage - while Breck would benefit from Fox's caution, experience and eye for detail. I hope they continue to work together.
I didn't like:
- The female characters. Are you at all surprised? There are plenty of women in the book but their roles are very limiting. There is Fox's sister, Jude. She's a battered woman, clinging stubbornly to the man who hurts her (and who turns up murdered early on in the plot, hooray!). There is Annabel, Jamie Breck's girlfriend, who exists solely to bring the boys pizza and feed them evidence from the investigation of the aforementioned murder (she is also a police constable on the force). There is Annie Inglis, who runs the 'Chop Shop' investigating sexual crimes against children. She's there to add some sexual tension for Fox, and to help Rankin draw out his sad history with women (divorce, of course); and she has a petulant teenage son, just, you know, because. And there is DI Stoddart, a Complaints officer from Aberdeenshire, who looks very stern; and a leggy journalist who makes Fox rather hot under the collar for about five minutes. Oh, and I almost forgot Joanna Broughton, whose role is to be the daughter of one swindler and the wife of another. None of these women are more than cogs in the plot machine, or filler that hold the (male) pieces together.
- The crime narrative, oh dear. I've already mentioned my lack of enthusiasm for the actual crime element of crime fiction, but I'll expand a little. The Complaints has a convuluted plot. It's all about police corruption (obviously) and the involvement of a network of officers in the financial double-dealings of Scottish gangs and crooks. Some of these crooks wear suits and live in very expensive penthouse apartments; and others hang out in dives in Dundee. They're all mixed up in the property market crash, and the financial crisis, and the human fall-out of this is what drives the book forward. The murder of Jude's boyfriend and the setting up of Malcolm Fox and Jamie Breck to take the blame are the outward showings of the rot at the heart of the system. Which is all well and good, but despite all the twists and turns and the long drawing out of the reveal, too much is obvious or, conversely, obscure, to make it really heart-thumpingly interesting.
Now I'm thinking to myself that reading The Complaints rather than a Rebus novel was a mistake. I can see from it all the things that make Rankin a superior crime writer, but I didn't enjoy it and that inevitably puts me off reading further. So what should I do? Should I pick a Rebus book at random and read, or go to the beginning, or should I leave Rankin for the moment and try some other crime writer? And if so, who?