Social inequality and sense of place in crime fiction

Ian Rankin fans will enjoy reading his conversation with the Indian communist leader Prakash Karat, who has read all his 17 Inspector Rebus novels and did his Master’s in politics at the University of Edinburgh, in Rankin’s hometown.

Rankin talks about his working-class parents, his being the first from his family to go to university — he read English at the University of Edinburgh — and his early struggles as a writer. Knots and Crosses, his first Rebus novel published in 1987, wasn’t a hit with the critics and readers. Instead, piquantly, he became a crime suspect as the plot resembled a murder case, he says!

Success came only 10 years later with Black and Blue, his eighth Rebus book.

Now, says the Hindu, “Ian Rankin is the best-selling writer of crime fiction in the United Kingdom, accounting for 10 per cent of all its crime book sales.”

The Indian newspaper published his conversation with Karat during his visit to India last month under the headline, “Crime fiction is about social inequality”. You can read it here and here.

The headline is a direct quote from Rankin.

Discussing politics and crime fiction with the Indian communist leader, he says:

I think crime fiction is almost like a product of capitalism. It’s about social inequality. Why do people do bad things to each other? Much of the time, it’s economic. It’s to do with basic human nature — greed, a sense of injustice, other people having things that you want, a sense of grievance that something’s happened at work. That’s what I like about crime fiction specifically. It tells us that the civilised world is just a veneer, a very thin veneer.


The Complaints: No Rebus but pure Rankin

Police procedurals don’t get better than The Complaints. Ian Rankin is in riveting good form. I couldn’t put down the book until I finished it. And it doesn’t even feature Inspector Rebus, who had his swansong in Exit Music, published in 2007.

The Complaints, published last year, presents a new hero: Inspector Malcolm Fox, also one of Edinburgh’s finest, but not a criminal investigator like Rebus; Fox’s job is to investigate other cops. He is the man from Internal Affairs, or what in Edinburgh is called the Complaints. Here, however, he himself is under investigation, apparently for the murder of his sister’s live-in boyfriend. But, as he fights to clear his name, he discovers he is being framed by dirty cops and gangsters.


The Sunday Philosophy Club

This is the second book I have read by Alexander McCall Smith. I loved his bestseller, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. In a way, this is even better.

Isobel Dalhousie is as far removed from Precious Ramotswe, the owner of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, as Edinburgh from Botswana. Precious is Botswana’s only female detective. Isobel, on the other hand, is an intellectual who edits a philosophy journal in Edinburgh. A single woman of independent means, she doesn’t have to work for a living. But she is as curious and observant as Precious. And when she sees a young man fall to his death from the balcony during an opera, she doesn’t stand around helplessly. She has to investigate.

The wonder is the young man’s friends and colleagues cooperate with her instead of telling her off for asking them odd questions like a policeman. Are the people of Edinburgh that polite? Ian Rankin portrays a seedier, more dangerous Edinburgh in his Inspector Rebus mysteries. But in the well-heeled circles Isobel moves, even the nastier characters are smooth as silk.

There are no flying bullets, no flashing daggers. There are so few characters to investigate she still has time to check out her beloved niece’s boyfriend whom she suspects to be cheating on her niece.

Except for a bit of suspense towards the end where she gets the fright of her life, thriller lovers will find little to thrill them here. But if you love a good detective story, it’s an absolute gem.

It delivers a one-two punch. As soon as we discover how the young man fell to his death at the opera, there comes the even more surprising ending.

The Sunday Philosophy Club may be a slim little paperback with very little action, but the ending is an absolute corker.

Incidentally, there’s quite a bit of the author himself in this book. He plays the bassoon just like the nice young man Isobel wants her niece to marry — even though she is half in love with him herself. McCall Smith is an amateur bassoonist in the Really Terrible Orchestra, which apparently lives up to its name. He makes gentle fun of the orchestra here.