Written by Ian Rankin — Since the return of Rebus last year in Standing in Another Man’s Grave, a serial killer investigation that took him on a sinister Scottish road trip, the formerly retired Detective Inspector has been as mischievous as ever while trying to maintain his authority in a changing world. Whether stealing his cold crime unit boss’s stapler or drinking in the Oxford Bar with career criminal Big Ger Cafferty, the Edinburgh detective is a law unto himself. But he gets results, so after raising the retirement age the force has welcomed him back, albeit with a demotion to Detective Sergeant due to budget cuts.
In Saints of the Shadow Bible, we learn more about the origins of this prehistoric cop – and it’s not a pretty sight. That title refers to the name that Rebus’s senior CID colleagues at Summerhall police station gave the team 30 years earlier as they dispensed justice in their own fashion and swore an unbreakable oath. Gullible suspects were told that the red light in interview room B, which signified the start of proceedings, was actually a lie detector. Crimes committed by informers may well have been overlooked, and this is the crux of the novel. The Solicitor General is using changes to the double jeopardy law, which prevented a defendant from being tried twice for the same crime, to resurrect the case of Billy Saunders. He was a trusted grass who escaped a murder conviction because of police incompetence – or possibly sabotage. Three decades on, the so-called Saints are back in the frame and the man leading the charge is Malcolm Fox from Internal Affairs, Rebus’s nemesis.
The book begins with Rebus in menacing mode as he drives a former suspect around Arthur’s Seat above the city, trying to tease out a murder confession for an 11-year-old case. Perhaps nothing’s changed as far as this old cop’s concerned. And yet change is on the agenda with a major police reorganisation pending and the independence referendum approaching next year. The former Summerhall CID boss Stefan Gilmour is now a businessman and key figure in the No to independence campaign, so he suspects the ruling Scottish Nationalists are out to prove his involvement in a 30-year-old criminal conspiracy.
Parallel to the Summerhall probe, Rebus and DI Siobhan Clarke investigate a suspicious car crash in the West Lothian ‘Badlands’ involving a student, Jessica Traynor, the daughter of a shady entrepreneur from Croydon. Jessica’s boyfriend, Forbes, happens to be the son of the Scottish justice minister, a Yes vote strategist, so when Forbes is suspected of having fled the scene that leads to further political paranoia.
Rebus is unmoved by independence, as you’d expect from a hard-bitten cop devoid of idealism, while Siobhan Clarke is in the Yes camp. Rebus once mentored Clarke, but now she is his superior and questions of trust abound as she quizzes his links to the Saints. Rebus also faces an enforced partnership with Fox on the Summerhall investigation, which results in some sparkling, barb-filled dialogue between these very different officers. Rebus is still boozing, smoking and listening to classic rock, while Fox, a recovering alcoholic, drives at exactly 39 miles per hour to avoid breaking the speed limit. He also has his own career agenda as his spell in the complaints unit is up.
Fox was a little unloved by readers as a main protagonist in The Complaints and The Impossible Dead, but he provides a nuanced contrast to the scene-stealing Rebus in Saints of the Shadow Bible. This is a superb crime novel in which Rankin cleverly explores the subtle, insidious nature of loyalty while ratcheting up the tension to leave you nervously anticipating a sudden explosion of violence. You’re never quite sure of Rebus’s culpability in the Saints’ sins of the past, nor of his intentions. And the question of where your loyalty should belong is timely given the independence vote. Rankin is a master at melding real-life events with his absorbing plots and well-drawn characters. If he can bring this ageing cop back again, it will be fascinating to see Rebus dealing with the political fall-out after September 2014.
Read our interview with Ian Rankin here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars