Saturday, January 18, 2014

Ian Rankin's Saints of the Shadow Bible

I have to confess that when I downloaded the ARC for Ian Rankin's Saints of the Shadow Bible, I was skeptical that it could possibly live up to earlier Rebus novels.  It's the nineteenth book featuring Inspector John Rebus, and it's hard to maintain the same sharpness after that many stories with the same lead character.  Patrick O'Brian may have succeeded--at least that's what several friends who've read all of those novels report--but I'm convinced it's an almost impossible task.

I was wrong to be skeptical:  Saints of the Shadow Bible is the best of the five Rebus novels I've read.

As I've said in previous posts, I'm a slow reader, and I rarely find myself truly unable to put a book down.  In the case of this novel, I felt compelled to keep going today--I wanted to know not only what was going to happen next, but how Rankin was going to set the next scene.  I blew through the last 250 pages of the novel, stopping only when absolutely necessary.

I just mentioned Rankin's scenes.  I think one of the strengths of his writing, and of this novel in particular, is the way he creates a series of crisp, tight, economical, and neatly-interlocking scenes.  Rather than place Rebus and others in long scenes that focus on one location or one problem exhaustively, Rankin gives us a sense of the characters and location through the accumulation of many short scenes that, in a sense, provide us with one small piece in the puzzle.  By now, for example, we know Rebus's apartment, the set-up, the key features (records, kettle, whiskey), and its general condition.  We know this not because Rankin places Rebus there for extended periods, but because in a given scene, we'll learn that he's listening to a particular vinyl album, reflecting on a particular aspect of the case, and focusing on some small piece of furniture or space in the apartment.  So when Siobhan Clarke visits his apartment in one scene in this novel, we get a brief glimpse into his refrigerator (and it doesn't look good); when Stefan Gilmour visits, a brief comment from him reveals that the apartment is in need of a paint job.  These brief observations accumulate, over the course of the novel, and indeed over the course of the series, and we see his apartment without ever having spent a lot of time there.

Rebus is a complicated guy, but saying that is stating the obvious.  Rankin expresses the underlying idea of the novel in this way:  good guys are not all good, and bad guys are not all bad, and the place where those things intersect is the place where things get interesting.  With few exceptions, none of the major characters ends up comfortably on the ethical high ground, and indeed at least one bad guy has done something that has positive effects.  The police may have evolved from the 1980s version that Rebus knew as a new officer in Summerhall, but Saints also suggests that good detective work always requires working in the gray area of ethics.  This is one of the epiphanies Malcolm Fox seems to have by the end of the novel.

Rankin also shows how Clarke refuses to make the same kinds of mistakes that the Summerhall "saints" made, and this adds another layer of complication to her relationship with Rebus.  He was her mentor, and she is his friend, but those things don't add up to a free pass for Rebus.  To do so would repeat the sins of of the "saints."
The writing in this novel razor-sharp and creates a forward motion to the novel that keeps us wanting to push forward in the story.  It's Rankin at his best:  far from being a stale, predictable novel, it's a compelling new chapter in the John Rebus saga.

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