Rather be the Devil
Orion Books, £19.99
Review by Shirley Whiteside
IAN RANKIN returns to his most famous character, John Rebus, for another tale about the seamier side of Edinburgh. Taking its title from a John Martyn song, it is a story about power and greed, liberally doused with violence and betrayal. It brings Rebus together with his former foe, DI Malcolm Fox, and loyal friend, DI Siobhan Clarke, as he works a cold case. It also reintroduces Gerald Morris Cafferty, a man who once and possibly still does rule the city’s underworld, into Rebus’ life.
Rebus may be retired but the itch to investigate has not left him. Some 40 years before, the beautiful Maria Turquand, an Edinburgh socialite, was murdered in her hotel room at the same time as local-boy-made-good rock star, Bruce Collier, was staying in the hotel with his entourage. The scene was chaotic and Maria’s murderer was never found. Keen to find answers, Rebus asks Clarke to slip him the Turquand files and begins sifting through them looking for clues.
Rankin’s portrayal of the retired Rebus is suffused with melancholy. He should be content, with his work-day worries over and a deepening relationship with Deborah Quant, a police pathologist, but he’s not. His inability to let go of his job and relax into a new way of life is sad. On doctor’s orders he is giving up smoking and cutting down on his drinking, which shortens his temper while potentially lengthening his life.
The main action involves DI Clarke and DI Fox. Clarke is still miffed that Fox got a posting to the Scottish Crime Campus that she wanted and reluctantly agrees to work with him on the murder of a pub bouncer. Rebus becomes a witness as he was the last person to speak to the deceased in the course of his Maria Turquand investigation. Rebus takes full advantage of the opportunities that being inside a police station again offer, from information to chocolate biscuits. However long after he has reason to be there, Rebus turns up again and again in the station, which rather undermines the sense of realism that Rankin uses to underpin his tales.
Clarke and Fox are also investigating an attack on Darryl Christie, an up-and-coming local gangster and suspect that Rebus’ arch enemy, Big Ger Cafferty, might be clipping the upstart’s wings. This gives Rebus the chance to catch up with his old adversary, the one criminal who always got away, who is now “the respectable ex-gangster around town”.
Clarke and Fox make a good team, their differences in approach complementing each other. They work as equals, which makes them a more appealing double act than Clarke and Rebus, with Clarke no longer the sidekick. Yet she remains a rather under-developed character, lacking the kind of personal or inner life that would flesh her out. She is a smart police officer but not adroit enough to negotiate the politics that would have got her the job she wanted. Fox, although tightly buttoned up, is an intriguing character and his relationship with his wayward sister subtley reveals a lot of his backstory and explains why he is normally so by-the-book. Other characters, however, are cardboard cut outs; DI James, Clarke and Fox’s boss is typically pompous, Darryl Christie, is an archetypical young criminal looking to take over Edinburgh’s underworld, and Big Ger Cafferty, who looks like a cartoon thug but has the nous of a wily barrister is no more three-dimensional.
There is a sense of glee as Rankin takes pot shots at bankers and others in the Edinburgh elite. The activities of a scion of a famous banking dynasty, amoral and slippery, are cleverly juxtaposed with those of the professional criminal class. As this suggests, Rather be the Devil is not a crime novel full of desperate chases or explosive revelations. It is the steady untangling of many different strands in order to reach a conclusion on the murders of the bouncer and Maria Turquand. Rankin’s use of language is not remarkable but it does suit his characters, and he has a nice line in sarcastic humour. When Fox is asked how he takes his tea, he says, “Without saliva, preferably.”
While being marketed as a Rebus novel, it actually belongs more to Clarke and Fox. Rebus is a shadowy figure, a metaphor perhaps for the shadow he calls Hank Marvin, which glowers over him throughout the story.