Rebus out-Foxed

The Impossible Dead
Ian Rankin, Orion Books, £13.99; Kindle: $16.97 (Europe/USA)

WHEN Detective Inspector John Rebus retired in 2007, after a triumphant 17 novels, readers wondered how Ian Rankin would cope without his renowned literary creation, a character who had attained an almost flesh-and-blood realism. We need not have worried. Two years on, Rankin introduced us to Detective Inspector Malcolm Fox, a man cut from similar cloth to Rebus but of a different nature.

Fox heads up the Lothian and Borders’ branch of professional standards and ethics, a three-man field team known as ‘the Complaints’. His job is to investigate corruption and improper behaviour within the force, which makes him a figure of contempt to ‘real’ cops. The Impossible Dead brings Fox and his assistants, Kaye and Naysmith, to the coastal Fife town of Kircaldy, where a detective named Paul Carter has been charged with abusing his position for sexual favours. Their task is to uncover evidence of departmental misconduct, but what should be a routine investigation is quickly muddied.

The complaint against Carter was made by his uncle, Alan, a retired cop. In the first in a great many twists, the uncle is murdered, shot in the head to look like suicide.

Driven by personal reasons, Fox runs an unofficial investigation and turns up a connection to the apparent suicide of a high-profile lawyer, Francis Vernal, back in 1985, a turbulent year in Scottish history. Vernal had links to a militant separatist organisation, some of whose members have since risen to positions of notable authority in television, government and the police. Echoing the past, homemade incendiaries detonate through the countryside, presenting Scotland with a fresh terrorist threat.

This novel has an author in full control of his skills. Few writers in any genre can set a scene so well, and though Rankin’s multi-layered plot is at times convoluted, it never falters in believability. It is in the building of characters that Rankin excels. Fox, in his second outing, is a figure of rich potential. While he trawls a similar mire to Rebus, he differs from his established predecessor in enough ways to shatter accusations of mimicry. What intrigues about Fox are his many failings. He is able in his work but is insecure as to its validity. He is a maverick, quietly flouting the rules.

He is a mass of contradictions. Steadfastly teetotal, which implies much about a past that for now remains unexplored, he is divorced, lonely, prone to depression. He is torn between loyalty to work and family, and feels guilt over his father ailing in a nursing home, and a sister forced to shoulder the caring duties. Rebus is one of British crime fiction’s great creations. With Malcolm Fox, Rankin has the potential to trump even that towering achievement.

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