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Rebus is back, as individual and interesting as ever.

After five years out in the cold of retirement (literally: he’s been working cold cases as a civilian) Rebus has managed to wangle his way back to CID as a semi-official investigator in Standing in Another Man’s Grave, which also marks five years since our last fictional sighting of him.

He’s applied to rejoin the police, since they have upped the age limit, but the events of this novel might seriously prejudice his hopes. The five years’ absence has done very little in the way of changing Rebus – he still has a terrible diet, smokes and drinks too much, listens to folk and rock classics (the novel’s title is inspired by a song by Scottish folksinger Jackie Leven), often on vinyl, he’s barely computer-literate and his dress is as dishevelled as ever. He’s a little older, but not much wiser:

He was first into the breakfast room. A fry-up, two glasses of orange juice and a couple of cups of coffee dealt with a head thickened by one whisky too many.

His personality hasn’t improved either. He’s still a maverick, still dour and cynical, still a loner who plays by his own rules and appears to have only rudimentary self-knowledge. These are characteristics the reader enjoys immensely, but none of them are attributes that appeal to the powers that be, or, indeed, to his fellow cops, who are often kept out of the loop as he bulldozes his way through and applies his own logic to events:

But that was how Rebus worked: kicking up the sand and sediment, then studying what effect it had and what was uncovered in the process.

While he’s chafing at the wait to see if his application is successful, Rebus fortuitously meets a woman whose daughter has been missing since 1999. It’s a righteous cold case, but she also has a theory about other young women who  have gone missing, giving Rebus his chance to butt into ongoing contemporary investigations.

There are elements that link several of the disappearances – the women were all last seen near a major highway, the A9, and in recent cases photographs of the same country scene have been sent to the mobile phones of friends or relatives.

Since Rebus is the one to bring the possible connections to official attention, he is reluctantly assigned to assist on the most recent investigations with his old partner, DI Siobhan Clarke, who has been on the straight and narrow road to promotion since Rebus left. Soon enough, he has Clarke bending the rules again.

As well as dealing with the fall-out from his particular methods of investigation, Rebus also has to contend with the ‘Complaints’ (Ethics and Standards), who are not happy about his continued association with his gangster nemesis, ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, and suspect him of being corrupt – but this in no way modifies his usual behaviour.

Rebus knows he is his own worst enemy, but he usually manages to slide out from under official disapproval and reprimand. Part of the pleasure of the books is in wondering how he’s going to get way with it this time. He continually needles his boss in the cold case unit:

‘It’s not them you need to win over. Don’t forget what I said: without my approval, you’re staying retired.’

‘But your approval’s all I’ve ever really craved, Danny.’

Cowan’s voice was rising to something just short of a yell when Rebus ended the call.

Rebus and Clarke resume their edgy partnership – made up of suppressed attraction (he tries to think of her as a daughter-figure), deep respect and affection, as well as Siobhan’s justified and continued exasperation.

The story involves a lot of the expected police-procedural investigation, dead-end leads, and quite a bit of Rebus driving around Scotland (punctuated by his salutes to the many distilleries). The investigation will lead to conflict between gangsters, the uncovering of a mass grave and complex motivations. There is a bumbling attempt at reconciliation between Rebus and his daughter, Samantha, unsentimentally but poignantly treated, and the Scottish countryside is beautifully and succinctly portrayed, if through Rebus’s particular perspective:

But now and then there would be a spectacular cove with pristine white sand and blue sea. Rebus began to wonder if he’d ever been further from a pub in his life.

It’s nice to see Rebus get out of Edinburgh, which Rankin has brought to graphic life in previous novels.

Meanwhile the Complaints are compiling their dossier and Rebus’s application for reinstatement seems doomed to failure.

All this is very satisfactory stuff from the veteran crime-writer. The writing is lean and evocative, with a lot of humour; there are no false notes, suspense builds gradually and we happily and trustingly follow Rebus wherever his anarchic path takes him. It is the character of Rebus that carries these novels – complicated, believable, dryly amusing while extremely frustrating – and his often uncomfortable interactions with other characters, particularly Siobhan, Samantha and Cafferty. He’s a lonely, eccentric and hopeless case in many ways, but Rebus is also Chandler’s hero-figure, walking the mean streets while not himself mean, tarnished (well, not much) or afraid:

… it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him the world would be a safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.*

The book ends with the very real possibility of more Rebus to come. Let’s hope so.

*Raymond Chandler, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’.

Ian Rankin Standing in Another Man’s Grave, Orion Books, 2012, PB, 368pp, $32.99

Ian Rankin is touring Australia this month. For his events program, click here.

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