Written by Ian Rankin — First a confession: we here at CFL are enormous fans of Ian Rankin. Everyone has their favourite crime fiction character – the enabler detective who first turned their love of the genre into a full-blown addiction – and for us it is DI John Rebus. So it was a sad day when, in 2007, Rebus hung up his warrant card.
In the four years since, the cigarette smoke haze has cleared and the whisky gone untouched. Yet in that short space of time Rankin fans have been blessed with a new hero in Inspector Malcolm Fox. The Impossible Dead may only be the second novel since Rebus’ retirement, but Rankin’s appetite for mischief and murder, social-commentary, plot and pace, remains as ready as ever.
The Impossible Dead is the follow-up to 2009’s The Complaints, which introduced us to Fox and his internal investigation unit. The premise was alluring from the first word, as we were introduced to a group of cops charged with investigating other cops. Fox’s unit is something of a renegade band, disliked even by their superiors, yet able to wield ever-greater powers of investigation thanks to the establishment’s commitment to police transparency.
The story begins in Fife, where Fox’s team is sent to investigate a local police station where officers have been covering a corrupt colleague’s misdemeanors. The charges at first appear quite typical: extortion and abuse of power, and a catalogue of cover-ups and lies to protect one of the gang. The corrupt officer in question had been caught when his own uncle, a police officer too, decided to out him. Fox’s team start picking at the evidence and soon begin unraveling truths that go deeper than any of them imagined, uncovering a conspiracy so deep-rooted and tangled in links to a terrorist past, that it must be solved as quickly as possible.
Rankin uses back-story to weave clues throughout the plot and revisit the terrorist attempts of Scottish separatists in the mid-1980s. As the body count rises, Fox finds himself personally involved, and the connections between the violent 80s and present day events become apparent. Without giving the game away, Rankin’s ability to gently hint at clues throughout the book is second to none, and here it culminates in a conclusion that comes from nowhere yet seems obvious once revealed. Call it a sleight of hand, call it classic crime fiction execution. For us it’s riveting, rewarding and hugely entertaining.
The Impossible Dead is a superb study in police procedural fiction. But it is more than that. Like the best of Rankin’s writing it deals in big picture themes filtered through a local lens. The Complaints linked the property bubble and economic crash of 2008 with social, political and institutional evils. Here Rankin uses the focused influence of one bad apple to prove how cover-ups and conspiracy breed like wildfire in a climate of intimidation and fear.
Inspector Fox and his unit are already well-developed, such is Rankin’s talent for dialogue and character, and one of the real strengths of his writing is his ability to ground his stories in realism. Here we see, amongst many other sub themes, how the police pecking order works, how influence between officers is defined by status and rank, and how all such organisational structures are susceptible to rot if it breaks out in a critical area.
You can tell by now how much we enjoyed The Impossible Dead, and how much we welcome the return of Fox and his team. But more than that, as Rankin fans we’re just glad to have our favourite writer in the genre hitting his stride and producing such superb work. John Rebus might be Rankin’s past, but in Fox he has created a character with enormous potential. We look forward to his future.
Orion (UK) / Reagan Arthur Books (US)
CFL Rating: 5 Stars