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Fox and Rebus: Right good Rankin

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin

I just finished reading Standing In Another Man’s Grave. It’s the most interesting book Ian Rankin has written in recent years.
John Rebus makes a comeback in this whodunnit and faces Malcolm Fox, the hero of Rankin’s two previous books, whose job is to nail dirty cops.
That’s what makes it so interesting. It’s not the mystery that’s so compelling as the face-off between the two Rankin heroes. Fox is convinced Rebus has criminal connections because underworld boss “Big Ger” Cafferty insists on drinking with Rebus, who actually abhors the gangster.
Even when others say Rebus is clean, Fox is determined to get him. Rebus is a maverick, he says, and there is no longer any room for him in the police force — he belongs to the past.

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Top guns: Britain’s favourite crime writers

American thriller writer James Patterson is very popular with library users in Britain. Not only is he the author of Sail, the most borrowed book last year, but of 17 others on the list of 250 most borrowed books. Most of them, however, were collaborations with other authors.

That leaves the field clear for another American, Patricia Cornwell, to claim the honour of being the favourite crime writer of library users in Britain. She authored five books on the list: The Front, No 7; Book Of The Dead, 22; Scarpetta, 78; At Risk, 81; and Predator, 205.

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Books most borrowed in America, Britain, Singapore

American thriller writer James Patterson is the author whose books are borrowed most often from libraries in America and Britain. Malcolm Gladwell topped the non-fiction list in America with Outliers: The Story of Success, according to Library Journal.com.

American authors dominate the list of 250 books borrowed most often in Britain in 2009.

Patterson is followed by the romantic writers Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel.

Only two of the 10 most borrowed books in Britain were by British writers: The Outcast by Sadie Jones and Friday Nights by Joanna Trollope.

Here are the top 10 lists for Britain, America and Singapore. The Singapore list is for the National Library Board’s financial year 2008.

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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.

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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.

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Who is Britain’s greatest living author?

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Clockwise from top left: Amis, Pinter, Naipaul, Rushdie, Rankin, Stoppard, Rowling and Hornby (in the centre).

If Martin Amis isn’t Britain’s greatest living author, who is? asks the Guardian today. Amis is certainly the flashiest. His brilliance with words simply dazzles. No one comes close except Salman Rushdie, whose name also came up in the random survey of writers, critics and booksellers.

But Rushdie has moved to the US. Still, Amis has plenty of competition. The biggest contenders whose names came up most frequently in the survey were Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Doris Lessing and VS Naipaul. Two of them have won the Nobel prize. But Pinter and Stoppard are playwrights. My choice would be a novelist.

I would choose Naipaul over Amis. Not just because I am an Indian. Naipaul has been around much longer and has covered a lot more ground, starting when Amis’ father, Kingsley, was the famous writer in the family. Naipaul is a great writer in every sense, not just a story teller but a social critic like Dickens or Tolstoy.

Amis is also more than a novelist. I haven’t read his criticism but have read his pieces on the War on Terror. Some may not like it, but he isn’t afraid to speak up.

Still, I wouldn’t call him Britain’s greatest living author for one simple reason: He can be heartless. Think of books like Money and London Fields. There’s no question about their brilliance. London Fields stands the whodunnit formula on its head. But it also shows a cruel streak. Some of the characters are treated with such utter contempt it becomes tiresome: Why write about them at such length at all unless one got a kick out of savagely ridiculing them? Satirists do that. But compare London Fields with Catch 22 and the difference is striking. Catch 22 is funny, not London Fields.

No wonder Amis is a sharply polarising figure — the Hillary Clinton of the literary world — equally hated and admired. (The same may be said of Rushdie. I prefer him to Amis.)

Interestingly, JK Rowling was also named by some in the survey as one of Britain’s best living authors. She wasn’t the only popular writer to make the list. So did Nick Hornby and Ian Rankin. Hornby is funny. I love Rankin.

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A rare English novel

I just finished reading Ian Rankin’s Fleshmarket Alley. What struck me was not so much the storytelling or the characterisation — Rankin has done better in earlier John Rebus novels which go deeper into characters and atmosphere. But this is a book one should read not only as a crime novel. What sets it apart is something else that is rare in British fiction. It describes the plight of the illegal immigrants and the wretched conditions in which asylum seekers are kept in Britain.

Rankin writes with his heart on his sleeve and shows the racism which exists in the housing estates, among police ranks and sections of the media. Of course, there are the good guys too. But reading this book made me pause and think: How often do we come across an English novel about the immigrants and the aliens? Rarely.

It’s true that curry restaurants are popular in Britain, there are Asians in every walk of life, and the majority of Britons don’t support the Iraq war.

But while the people behaved in exemplary fashion after the London blasts in July last year, how did they react when the police shot dead a man mistaken for a terrorist  just after the blasts? Angry protests did not flood the airwaves and the newspaper columns. He was a foreigner, a Brazilian.

Americans have had more to say and write about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison than Britons about their own forces in southern Iraq. Maybe, there is no comparison between the two. But maybe the anti-war feeling is based on not just a desire for peace but fear of terrorist reprisals. NIMBY — not in my backyard, please! 

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Rankin’s lovers

She yanked the padlock free, the chain coming with it. Pulled open the gate.

And was picked up off the ground by Rebus, his hug enveloping her.

‘Ow, ow, ow,’ she said, causing him to ease off. ‘Bit bruised,’ she explained, her eyes meeting his. He couldn’t help himself, planted his lips on hers. The kiss lingered, his eyes shut, hers wide open. She broke away, took a step back, tried to catch her breath.

‘Not that I’m not overwhelmed or anything, but what’s this all about?’

— Ian Rankin, A Question of Blood

"What’s all this about?" Ah ha, that’s asking. That long, slobbery smooch was just a snog waiting to happen as every reader knew from the sexual chemistry seething on every page though the guy and the gal never even let it into their thoughts. No, they sublimated it. He wants to protect her, she tries to mother him though he is much older than her — and there lies the rub. Theirs is a mutual attraction that dares not give itself away because of the generation gap: who wants to be a sugar daddy, or a Lolita, especially on the police force? As it is, they happen to be partners.

And that’s how Detective Inspector John Rebus and Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke play it — partners, friends, but not lovers — until almost the very end of this thriller when Rebus rushes to Siobhan’s rescue. He finds her alive and is so relieved he forgets himself — and plants that long, wet kiss. And, breathless, she asks "what’s this all about?" as if she doesn’t know — and she a detective! Is she being naive or coy?

The author, Ian Rankin, doesn’t explain. He cuts away to the last chapter where Siobhan is in hospital, recovering from a slight injury, with Rebus at her bedside. But we know they can no longer pretend to be just partners in the cop shop.

They certainly make an attractive pair. Rebus is a modern Philip Marlowe. Siobhan is feisty and caring, smart and devoted. It is their relationship which finesses the Rebus stories. Mystery is not the right word for Rankin’s novels. He may be Britain’s most successful crime fiction writer today but he can’t be compared with Christie or Conan Doyle because he doesn’t write typical whodunits. One reads him as much for his description of people and places as for who killed whom and why.

Going through A Question of Blood, I realised I had read it before. But that didn’t stop me from carrying on. Unlike the typical whodunit, where you want to get to the bottom of the mystery, here I wanted to linger among the people and the places and the music that accompanies Rebus and Siobhan wherever they go. A police procedural as full of character as a traditional novel and also a literary jukebox — that’s how I would describe this book.