Since four Tuesdays in the month only allow me four books as part of this Going Home series, today we finish the current run. But I’ve enjoyed rereading these books and will doubtless return to this concept at some future point.
And so, we have…
Black & Blue (1997) by Ian Rankin
How I encountered this book
The boxset I mentioned last week that got me reading Michael Connelly’s Blood Work (1998) also contained Hide & Seek (1991), the second book in Ian Rankin’s DI John Rebus series. I read that, enjoyed it, and somehow came into possession of Strip Jack (1992), the fourth, and enjoyed that, too. Having since started Connelly’s Harry Bosch books — a series that most certainly rewards chronological reading — I decided the skip back to the start of the Rebus books and similarly tackle them in publication order.
Black & Blue (1997) is the eighth, and the point in my mind where the series really took off — an oponion bolstered by the fact that it won the Crime Writers’ Assciation Gold Dagger Award for the best novel of 1996. Indeed, this and its immediate sequel The Hanging Garden (1997) stand out as undoubtedly the highlights of the series overall, revealing rich and complex plotting and never stooping to mere bathos where far more layered emotions and motivations would suffice. I could have picked any of the Rebus books, and should perhaps have chosen Hide & Seek here since it was my first, but I wanted to revisit the pinnacle of the ones I read, especially as the later stories — Set in Darkness (2000), Resurrection Men (2001), The Falls (2002), A Question of Blood (2003), and Fleshmarket Close (2004) where I dismounted the series — became increasingly reliant on coincidence, hand-waving, and a structural looseness that did the genre no credit.
By my estimation, I was reading this one when The Falls was out in hardcover, which would make it some time from the Autumn of 2002 to Spring 2003.
What’s it about?
Having made some powerful enemies in previous title Let It Bleed (1995), DI John Rebus is seconded from his usual Edinburgh haunt of St. Leonard’s to the tough Craigmillar police station, a.k.a. Fort Apache, in the throes of closing down and so largely operated by a skeleton staff. When an oil worker is found dead at a rundown set of flats out the edge of town, Rebus finds the investigation constantly intersecting with other concerns — rumours of drug smuggling, dying informants, and a recent accusation of police brutality that concerns both Rebus and his former mentor that is being investigated by a TV program and sees journalists dogging his every step.
Against this background, a spate of killings are reviving memories of the unsolved Bible John murders from the late 1960s, with the new killer christened ‘Johnny Bible’ by the media and seemingly every police force in Scotland on red alert to chase down what scant leads there are. And the police aren’t the only ones keen to find their man: possibly concerned that the investigation might dig up new evidence of those earlier crimes, Bible John himself returns to Scotland and begins to hunt down his unwanted offpsring, whom he christens ‘The Upstart’, and surely it’s only a matter of time before Rebus stumbles into the path of one of these killers. And possibly even both of them…
Any seeds of detection?
Any detection? In the eighth book of a series based around a professional detective who’s here investigating three crimes simultaneously against the background of a serial killing investigation? Any detection? Good heavens, what kind of question is that? Because, er, the answer is no. 500 pages, three investigations, two serial killers, accusations of misconduct requiring a searching re-examination of the lead character’s past actions and (possible) misdeeds…and the closest anyone gets to detecting anything is Rebus barking orders at the uniforms to check a crime scene for fingerprints and talk to forensics about, y’know, forensic-y things.
I was, honestly, somewhat taken aback by this. Every time a new thread is woven in — that drug smuggling rumour, say — someone just comes to talk to Rebus about it and he happens to have known the person and/or they happen to have been tangentially related to the other things he just so happens to be looking into at that very moment. Even the Bible John/Johnny Bible thread is handled with a complete disregard for anything approaching solid reasoning: Rebus is aware of the investigation because seemingly every Force in Scotland has some men dedicated to it, but on the couple of times he’s explicitly asked why he’s interested in pursuing it he sort of shrugs, mumbles something about the Bible John cases feeling like the end of an era of innocence, and has a couple of half-formed memories of having once — once! — spoken to one of the women who became a victim of Bible John’s much later.
The closest we get to detection is the presumption that someone who disowned his son might have been lying about their gender because of, er, reasons — which turns out to be unerringly correct — and a last-minute realisation that one of the people Rebus bumps into in the course of his investigation, again on a single occasion, exchanging maybe a minute of conversation, is Bible John. This isn’t a spoiler, by the way, since Bible John himself reveals this to us in a manner so casual that I had to reread it three times to realise what was happening. The arm of coincidence is so busy in this book, John Rebus should play the lottery. Except that on the way to buying his ticket he’d accidentally realise he married the Queen once and was now the heir to Jeff Bezos’ fortune while also having drunkenly scrawled the cure for cancer on the back of his cigarette packet (that’s the sort of lazy irony Rankin appears to love…how did I not notice this first time around?).
Can you go home?
No, no, no, no, no, a thousand times no. My memory of how wonderful this book was compared to the experience of reading it a second time has been catastrophic for the esteem I held the series, and this particular entry, in. I distinctly remembered Rankin walking a fine line between the crime novel expectations of the modern era and the seamless narrative construction of the puzzle plot, but this is to detective fiction what Newspeak is to linguistic expression: narrowing, restrictive, dismissive, and insulting. The only element of the entire book that worked for me was the relationship Rebus struck up with the police officer who is assigned to shadow him once he, Rebus, ends up a suspect in the Johnny Bible investigation; the sense of two intensely private men who dislike the situation they’re in but do their best to remain professional while also, inevitably, learning more about each other through sheer proximity is wonderfully managed, but it’s like it’s wandered in from a different book.
Case in point: a large part of the plot hinges on the re-emergence of Bible John as he stalks The Upstart and seeks to put an end to his killings. Why would he do this? Why take such a risk when, remaining unapprehended for some 25 years, surely all he’s doing is putting himself back in harm’s way? Late on, Rebus reflects:
Could Bible John really be out there still? Dormant somewhere until brought to life by Johnny Bible? Enraged by the act of imitation, by its temerity and the cold fact that it brought the old case back up into the light? Not only enraged, but feeling endangered, too — externally and internally; fear of being recognised, and caught; fear of not being the bogeyman any longer.
Which would make a kind of sense, but for the fact that we’ve already been told that Bible John himself “didn’t want to feel too close in any way to this brash pretender, this usurper. He wanted to feel unique” and that his main problem with it seems not to be any fear that the investigation will unearth something new about him — lord knows, he does enough harm to himself on that score entirely independent of the Johnny Bible investigation — and more that he’s annoyed because Johnny Bible has killed four women compared to Bible John’s three.
Yup, serial killers go in for dick-measuring, it would appear.
Bible John is also one of the stupidest criminals I’ve yet encountered on the page. By the sorts of odds that would have even me throwing a GAD novel aside in disgust, he meets Rebus in the course of his normal work and, unaware Rebus is a policeman, gives him a business card. Later, reproaching himself for this error, he breaks into Rebus’ flat to steal the card back, but is unable to find it. Rebus, returning home to find his flat broken into but nothing missing, spends half the book being mystified by this and eventually, right at the death, “realises” that the thief must have been after the business card, must therefore be the owner of the card, must therefore be Bible John. No, I’m not simplifying it as much as you might suspect. Now, why, then, didn’t Bible John also, like, steal something from the flat as cover? Because, I’ll be honest, if I was a serial killer who’d successfully avoided capture for 25 years hunting around in a policeman’s flat in a manner that’s only going to draw loads of attention to itself as an unmotivated act and thus possibly raise the spectre of suspicion against myself that’s the first thing I’d think of doing.
And Rebus isn’t much better. At one point he’s attacked and knocked out — it could have been done by any one of a number of people who wish to see him out of action — but the first time someone suggests to him who it might have been he sort of thinks about it for a minute, goes “Yeah, that’s possibly plausible” and it’s never brought up again. The naiveté is so striking because at times his street smarts are out in full force — passing up three pubs when looking for somewhere to drink because they’re “not places a policeman could drink safely”, raising questions about the validity of the presentation of a crime scene (it turns into a locked room murder for all of about a line before it transpires the lock can be hocussed from the outside with a screwdriver) — and then suddenly he’s panicking because some of the most hilariously anecdotal evidence makes him a suspect in the Johnny Bible case (though, in fairness, this could be a nod to Rankin himself having once become a suspect in a series of killings while researching his first novel) while also jumping to the first possible conclusions he can with even less evidence or reasoning and happening to be 100% on the money.
And here’s the thing: it’s not even that Rankin is a bad writer — he is gorgeously comfortable with the argot, throwing around references to woolly suits and Furry Boot Town without feeling the need to jump in and explain, and he has the cynicism of the run-ragged policemen down wonderfully:
“You’ve got a psychic working the case, haven’t you?”
Ancram looked nettled. “Not me personally, some arsehole further up the ranks. It’s a newspaper stunt, but the brass went for it.”
“Has he helped?”
“We told him we needed a demonstration, asked him to predict the winner of the two-fifteen at Ayr.”
Rebus laughed, “And?”
“He said he could see the letters S and P, and a jockey dressed in pink with yellow spots.”
“The thing is, though, there was no two-fifteen at Ayr, or anywhere else for that matter…”
Equally, his pen portraits of the minor characters are sublime: a small time felon looking “like life was sporting a horseshoe in one of its boxing gloves”, or an informer who “drank nothing stronger than Ovaltine and couldn’t watch anything more exciting than Pets Win Prizes“. The difficulty seems to come in drawing the panorama of life into something approaching a plot, especially one with Rebus at the centre, who must go through the whole thing behaving abominably — personally and professionally — and still come out on top. Your classical sleuth of yore nearly always traded in outsider status — either in societal terms like Hercule Poirot, or simply by deign of having to view everyone as suspicious, to be set apart from all the other players as the person responsible for attributing guilt and so never a part of the milieu in the same way as everyone else — but they won through by sheer intelligence, even brilliance, in being the only one who could make the necessary connections. Rebus does it by standing in the right place 90% of the time and leaping to conclusions the other ten. My…hero?
The one thread that might have been able to provide some investigation and retrospective analysis is the D-story about this accusation of brutality and planting evidence being investigated by the media. And even that is simply mulled over a couple of times and then the senior officer Rebus was working with at the time — who now lives out his retirement somewhere warm — simply sends in a letter that says “Nope, I didn’t plant any evidence” and that’s it. Part of the problem stems form that fact that with so many spoons in the mix it’s difficult to say what the plot of the book is, since Rebus is never on the Johnny Bible investigation but everything else seems to drift in and out nebulously around that, and so the main thread which bears investigating never materialises. Everything simply fizzles to a close, often on account of hilarious unlikelihoods such as Rebus remembering a woman who walked past him when he was entering a club four days previously. I’ll take the slightly stagey contortions of classic detective fiction over that sort of thing any day of the week.
Sure, there are some very loose links to classic detection — it turns out there really were three murders in Scotland in the late 1960s, all attributed to a man known as Bible John, and the manner of his appearance and how he came to be identified is in life as in this novel, replicating that tendency the authors of the classics had for using staggering specifics of real life crimes in their fiction — but apart from that very long reach we are quite some distance from Kansas now, Toto. It’s a shame to finish on a dud, but instructive in how far my tastes have developed in the years since I read this. And, hey, at least I’ve taken a break from slaughtering someone else’s sacred cows to turn the knife upon one of my own. But, good grief, this was a compelling experience for all the wrong reasons.