Well if Ian Rankin can do it then so will I. Vox humana, with its immaculate acoustic guitar and a lot more, is the opening track of Jackie Leven‘s fine collection of songs on the 2008 album Oh what a blow that phantom dealt me! A line from the hypnotic blues-inflected second track – One man one guitar – is where Rankin acknowledges he got the title for his latest novel; the beautiful third track – Another man’s rain – was, after a bit of mondegreen mangling, the source of the previous one.
I gave the stunningly good Phantom a listen because I was reading the new Rankin and now I can’t stop playing it. With someone as prolific as the late lamented Jackie Leven you can forget and still be pleasantly surprised by just how good most of what he did was. There are plenty of other harvestable book titles on Phantom. Other highlights include the Bacharach-ish Kings of infinite space, and Here come the urban ravens, his plaintively spare banjo-augmented tribute to fellow songwriter on the margins, Kevin Coyne. Great performances, inventive soundscapes – you should give it a go. And I haven’t mentioned a mind-blowing skiffle rendition of the old chestnut I’ve been everywhere as applied to German towns and cities yet, or the delightful and crucial vocal interventions of kindred spirit Johnny Dowd, and the latter’s moving recital of Kenneth Patchen‘s elegy for a recently deceased friend, The skater, against a musical setting; Jackie was ever poetry’s champion. A great and lovely but never tame album; what that clever lager ad said about reaching parts.
And so, onto the new Ian Rankin novel named, as I’ve just said, after a line in a Jackie Leven song. It doesn’t sell it short. Saints of the Shadow Bible (Orion, 2013) is Rankin writing at his very best. Allowed back into the police force proper as a lowly Detective Sergeant answering to his protegé of old, now Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke and helping and/or being investigated himself by a Complaints division investigation into the behaviour of the first CID team he was on (the Saints of the Shadow Bible of the book’s title) John Rebus is in for a difficult time, juggling loyalties to colleagues old and new. And that’s just the personal background to the current crimes – a suspicious car crash, a murder, which may or may not be linked – that he is actively involved in investigating, all set against a political backdrop involving leading figures from politics and business in the Scottish independence debate.
Some things about what Ian Rankin is up to here stuck out for me. Firstly, the prose seems tighter to me, especially once the book gets going; I surmise the death of Elmore Leonard and the publicity given to his 10 rules of good writing might have jogged his finger on the delete button. Secondly, I’m impressed with Rankin, having spent so much time with him, showing faith – rather than abandoning him – with Malcolm Fox. The head of the Complaints, who was the leading character in two of the three books in Rankin’s non-Rebus interregnum, which while in no way bad had most fans longing for Rebus’s return. Malcolm’s developing relationship with Rebus throughout Saints of the Shadow Bible is one of the book’s real strengths. Thirdly, how great it is to have a fully fledged Siobhan Clarke back again, with all the subtleties of their changed professional relationship. With those three now set up – with Rebus’s future up for grabs again, and Fox probably returning to CID – Rankin has given himself a strong platform to move off from, with plenty of room for wit, when he returns from his recently announced sabbatical. And I like the idea of new gal Christine Esson’s potential to slip into the old Siobhan role too.
The Saints of the Shadow Bible were the team out of Summerhall back in the ’80s, the young Rebus’s first CID assignment. They went into battle with a cassette of The Skids‘ The Saints are coming in the car’s stereo and took no prisoners:
Clarke was staring at him. “How dirty was Summerhall?”
He studied the surface of his tea. “Dirty enough. You ever see that programme Life on Mars? It felt like a documentary …”
“It used to be the way of it, John – get the scumbags off the street by hook or crook,” as one of his old chum pleads in the Saints’ defence. It’s one of those unavoidable clichés of crime fiction these days. Rebus is still driving the Saab and being careful about drink-driving, still relying on vinyl LPs for music in his flat, but when another Saint says, “Soft drinks and playing things by the book. Who’d have thought it?” it’s not for long; no wagon in sight here. When Esson offers to do a food run and he asks for a sausage roll, she came back to the office:
[...] and handed him a paper bag. The lack of grease stains meant she’d ignored his request. The baguette contained ham salad. “It’s like being at one of those health spas,” he muttered.
Musically it’s the usual late-Rankin mix. Rebus has a B.B.King ringtone on his mobile phone, uses John Martyn’s Solid air as soundtrack to some serious thinking and (mysteriously) puts Spooky Tooth’s second album on in the car to quell his rising blood pressure. There’s also some rather good banter between him and Malcolm concerning the latter’s brown shoes and Frank Zappa‘s Brown shoes don’t make it opus that has a nice pay-off line. There’s probably a full listing of all the references on the website.
“But I know what Miles Davis would say [...] .”
Clarke narrowed her eyes. “What would he say?”
He’d say: ‘So what.’
So this is Ian Rankin in his pomp.
The book group talked discussed Mosin Hamid‘s The reluctant fundamentalist (2007) longer and more intensely than most titles that come under their purview. The differences were not so much about its intriguing quality and the strangeness of its narrative device – a conversation at a café table in Lahore between Changez, the Pakistani narrator, and a visiting American from which we only get to hear the former’s contribution, so it is effectively a monologue – as to the increasingly tense and ambiguous outcome. Are they CIA, who is Changez working for, where exactly is he coming from?
Changez has indeed been through some changes. He’s the bright kid from the village who gets taken up by Princeton and starts to live the American dream. The only actual mention of fundamentals in the text is in the context of how the ruthless capitalist consultancy powerhouse that he starts working for operates. Three things bring his idyll into question: a tragic love affair with an American girl, his seeing what the firms’ inter-continental activities do to decent people’s lives, and changing attitudes in the US after the events of 911, in particular in relation to his appearance – I wasn’t the only one who thought back to what happened to an Irish friend in London at the time of the IRA bombing campaign.
This is a relatively short book but it covers a lot of ground. American arrogance turns Changez, but it is never quite clear into what. He deliberately fails at his job and goes back to Pakistan, to his family and his roots, working as a university lecturer. The American, who may be carrying a gun, reluctantly hears Changez’s tale and is led into … who knows? But on the way there is some fine writing to enjoy. Here’s Changez in pre-011 New York: “One evening I was walking with Erica through Union Square and we saw a firefly. “Look,” she said, amazes. “It’s trying to compete with the buildings.“” And that firefly’s flight is followed in enchanting detail. In another passage that sticks in my mind, in the café in Lahore, Changez tries to explain the uniqueness of their olfactory situation, of the delicacy of jasmine’s perfume “against the robust smell of roasting meat.” An intriguing novel indeed (and I’m a vegetarian).
That time of the year again and so, Morris dancers and Mummers in the Stony Stratford High Street, all the fun of a mini-fair, tombolas, raffle ticket sellers and massed crowds for the Lantern Parade (quite a few Tardis-es this year) and the switching on of the Christmas lights.
And A Switch On Poetry Showcase upstairs in the kept open in the afternoon for the occasion library (with Santa’s grotto downstairs). Bard Richard Frost had assembled a fine collection of poets for the delectation of … a dedicated few. But hey, it was an audience and the words (and tea, and some mulled wine) flowed, all nicely rounded of with a couple of storming performances from a pretty much family friendly The Antipoet (shame on those who left after their slot!) and The Screaming House Madrigals (plus bongo-ist and washboard).
We may well have danced this dance before but it’s a good dance. And so outside again for the parade’s arrival in the Market Square, two countdowns’ worth of light switch failure and The Bard’s specially written poem, which we heard at the back, if not the actual words.