The Beat Goes On by Ian Rankin

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The Rebus revival continues with this volume of 29 tales, old and new, featuring the irascible Edinburgh detective. Having retired Rebus, Ian Rankin brought him back for a cold case in Standing in Another Man’s Grave in 2012 and then reinstated him to CID – albeit with a demotion – for last year’s Saints of the Shadow Bible. The stories in The Beat Goes On may be a stopgap for fans awaiting a 20th Rebus novel, but it’s a bountiful collection and also includes Rankin’s thoughtful essay on the making of his maverick detective.

The opening story, Dead and Buried, actually references events in the most recent novel and features a young Rebus when he was a CID newbie at Summerhall station in the mid-80s and still a married man. In fact, it’s not an old story but featured in a limited edition of Saints of the Shadow Bible. A prison yard exhumation of a convicted murderer hanged in 1963 introduces Rebus to the culture of corruption and the grisly nature of 60s justice (the prison hanging shed is still in “full working order should capital punishment make a comeback”).

Many of these stories featured in two previously published collections, A Good Hanging and Beggars Banquet. Rankin clearly enjoys the short form and has plenty of ideas that might not sustain a novel but are perfect for a witty, intriguing 20-page tale. He likes to play on the classics too. The Dean Curse has Rebus struggling with Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse when he’s called out to investigate a car bomb that targeted a shadowy ex-military man known as Brigadier-General Dean. A Three-Pint Problem, one of two brand new stories, is a Rebus-style nod to Sherlock Holmes’s three-pipe problems with the detective and his partner Siobhan Clarke in the Oxford Bar mulling over the mysterious email that made a car dealer apparently take flight.

Playback – presumably a nod to Chandler’s novel – shows its age as the case rests on a telephone answering machine. But even when the stories feel dated or slight (there are a few Christmas tales written for newspapers), Rebus is always enjoyable company for the reader if not for his colleagues. DS Brian Holmes often seems to resent the senior detective’s inability to share information about his methods. Rebus gets on better with DS Clarke and the chemistry Rankin creates between the pair makes the later stories a particular pleasure. The Very Last Drop takes them on a post-retirement tour of a Scottish brewery yet Rebus can’t stop himself sniffing out an old crime during the boozy outing.

Edinburgh is also a formidable presence and Rankin draws on the history and literature of his adopted city, as well as portraying the lives of its wealthy and destitute. Castle Dangerous focuses on the death of a retired QC who shares a name and knighthood with the Scottish historical novelist Sir Walter Scott. The old lawyer’s body is even found by the Scott Monument. Being Frank is a touching tale about a gentleman of the road. The Passenger, a new story, is inspired by Muriel Spark and is one of the more sinister in this collection.

My one complaint is the lack of contrast between these tales, which are all around 10 or 20 pages and have a tendency to blur into one another when read in quick succession. Many are clever and memorable, while a few are light-hearted and merely diverting. Perhaps it’s a book best dipped into when you’re missing the sharp-witted, curmudgeonly Scottish cop.

When Rankin does attempt a more ambitious story he pulls it off in style. Death is Not the End is a long, moving account of Rebus’s return home to Fife to help on a missing person case that has connections to his past. Another story called Sunday is concise yet skillfully hints at psychological turmoil below the surface during a lazy day for the cop in the aftermath of a shocking incident. It’s one of the many stories that makes this an essential volume for Rebus fans.

Read our interview with Ian Rankin here


CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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