Siobhan Clarke was in a corridor of the Royal Infirmary, phone held up to her face, when she recognised Rebus making his way towards her.
‘You’re limping,’ she said.
‘Just to correct you, I’m actually walking like John Wayne.’
‘John Wayne had a limp?’
‘Technically it’s called “moseying”.’
‘So you didn’t hurt yourself kicking in a door?’
There is a lot of sharp dialogue in Rather be the devil, the latest installment in Ian Rankin‘s Rebus saga, and highly enjoyable it all is too. The retired Rebus is picking over a society murder case that had frustrated him earlier in his career, while his old mate and protegé DI Siobhan Clarke is involved in a case involving an Edinburgh criminal gang boss. An ex-cop that Rebus goes to see is murdered not long after their meeting, and to Siobhan’s chagrin that case is taken up by Police Scotland’s elite squad, where another Rebus regular Malcolm Fox is now working.
Inevitably – this is crime fiction, after all – the cases are intriguingly discovered to be tangentially linked, not to forget an East-European connection, and the plotting provides ample room for Rebus putting his oar in and generally getting in the way, and for inter-police re-organisation rivalries to be played out on various levels, down to an entertaining sub-plot as to who gets the milk and provides the biscuits. Old rival old school gang boss Big Gerry Cafferty – still a player – ends up figuring significantly and the tantalising prospect is held out at the close of proceedings that the next book will indeed be, in current tv terms, a spectacular series finale involving a final conflict between our man and Big Ger.
I get the impression Rankin really enjoyed doing this one. Don’t get me wrong, Rather be the devil rattles along as effectively as ever, Rankin the plot-juggler still more than adept at keeping the balls in the air and the tension up, but the writing seems at times to take on a more relaxed feel. Rebus has health worries – a “Hank Marvin”, a shadow on his lung – and is drinking low alcohol beers, chewing nicotine gum; he is also (hurray!) in a stable relationship with a woman. Even though Rebus’s cold case involves a rock musician, the explicit musical references – becoming something of a genre cliché in certain circles – are thankfully more restrained. The book’s title is still taken from a track on John Martyn’s Solid air album, though …
… staring out at the night. Then he had walked to the record deck. Solid air was still there from the evening Deborah Quant had stayed over. It was an album that had always been there for him, no matter the troubles in his life. And Hadn’t John Martyn been troubled too? Johnny Too Bad – hitting the booze, falling out and brawling with friends and lovers. One leg hacked off in the operating theatre. But barreling on through life, singing and playing until the end.
… and without giving anything away there’s Over the hill, another Solid air track playing in the background in the restaurant in the final pages. Rory Gallagher is really the only other featured artist. Rebus is on a long drive with Malcolm Fox:
‘… I need to do a bit of thinking, which necessitates muting you – sorry about that.’
Rebus reached for the stereo, pushing a button. Music burst from the speakers, filling the car as Rebus pressed his foot against the accelerator. Had Fox been any kind of music buff, he might have recognised the guitar sound, Rory Gallagher, ‘Kickback City’.
Ah, Malcolm Fox. I salute you, Ian Rankin, for keeping faith with the man you created in your writer’s holiday from Rebus, and I realise you’re trying here, with Rebus off-handedly tutoring him in the ways of becoming a ‘real’ detective, in his heroism, but he’s condemned in his own words: “nobody paid him any heed. He remembered that he was good at this – blending in, becoming invisible. He’d always enjoyed stakeouts and tailing suspects“; I’m afraid he remains anonymous, I can’t visualise him. Siobhan deserves better as a beau (which seems to be the way the wind’s blowing).
Ah, Siobhan. Calls for a bit of a diversion beyond teh printed page. The original Rebus TV series, with John Hannah in the lead part, didn’t really work; Hannah was too young, too handsome. I seem to recall that Rankin – apart from a Hitchcockian appearance as an extra – said he wasn’t getting involved in the production or script side of things at all. Not even wanting to watch the finished product. Something about Colin Dexter’s Morse, how in Dexter’s later books Morse morphed into the character actor John Thaw was playing, that the author allowed himself to lose control of his creation.
Subsequent series of Rebus, with Ken Stott’s Rebus the living breathing character straight off the page, have fared much better in reflecting the books. I’ve been watching them again recently and they strike me as being one of the best cop shows out there. What I do wonder is whether Ian Rankin has been watching; although the character in the book has not changed, the dialogue here is sharper and wittier and I can’t help but, when reading, see it coming out of Ken Stott’s mouth.
But Siobhan … how great is Claire Price’s portrayal of Siobhan? Impossible, I’d say, to replicate her reactions in prose: the half-smile, her muted grimaces, the odd gentle smirk – sometimes all at the same time – her whole facial repertoire of affection, amusement, appalled admiration and suppressed surprise; but they all had to be hinted there in the text for her to pick so fully up on. Worth a mention too is Jennifer Black’s performances as DCI Gill Templar, Rebus’s boss and former lover; the scene where Siobhan Clarke discovers that past liaison is a joy to behold. Tremendous performances that I don’t think get the credit they deserve, and fully born of the books.
Before we leave Edinburgh here’s a snippet, a taste and feel of the lightness among the mayhem in Rather be the devil:
The solitary barman was entertaining the only two drinkers in the place to a sullen silence, the new arrivals doing nothing except darken his mood.
‘Help ye?’ he snapped.
‘Bottle of your best champagne, please,’ Rebus said.
‘If ye want fizz, we’ve got cider and lager.’
‘Both of them fine substitutes.’ Rebus held out the two photos. ‘Care to take a look?’
… dialogue the likes of which you are unlikely to find many examples in the works of Alice Munro, where the odd wry smile is more the order of the day among much else of emotional import and the forensic examination is mostly taking place in the particular region of the heart. Come to think of it, Siobhan might have escaped from one of her stories.
Nobel Prize for Literature winner Alice Munro has been on my check-her-out list for at least a couple of decades, so thanks to the Book Group I can tick her off that list and transfer her onto the almost-certainly-read-some-more one. (These are not real lists). Shame of it is I left the reading of Dear Life (2012) late for the Book Group meeting and so had to zip through it when really I should have been savouring every word.
Hers is not a flashy prose, but it sings, takes you straight into how her people feel the changes in their lives; she documents social change in communities – post-war rural church-going, small town Canada through to the ’70s – through the events in women’s and men’s lives. Intense, insightful, poignant, painful, melancholic, nuanced, rarely but oh so sweetly celebratory. Loves lost, love foiled, found or never had. Hopes extinguished, held on to, or newly discovered through the shifting sands of contingency, coincidence, happenstance. And growing old. That title – Dear Life – puts it so nicely.
Dear Life, published when she was 81, so probably her last collection, consists of 10 short stories and a Finale of 4 “not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.” These ‘not quite’ stories are fascinating, covering her childhood and early youth: the moment she failed to believe her socially aspiring mother; her father seeing her through a scary unhappiness, and various other events, described so vividly:
I think that if I was writing fiction instead of remembering something that happened, I would never have given her that dress. A kind of advertisement she didn’t need. [from Voices]
You would think that this was just too much. The business gone, my mother’s health going, it wouldn’t do in fiction. But the strange thing is that I don’t remember that time as unhappy. There wasn’t a particularly despairing mood around the house. [from Dear Life]
There’s enough in the ten stories for at least half of them to justify novels of their own. Dolly, which starts with an old couple, the man a poet once celebrated for his first book of love poems, looking for the perfect place to end their lives together, before they become too decrepit (spoiler alert: they don’t) takes on some wondrous and distressing turns in the twenty or thirty odd pages as the story unfolds. Haven, a multi-layered family tale of disastrous good intentions involving a cellist and sibling indifference, builds to a stunning climax at a big church funeral, and along the way contains a deliciously strident (what we could now call anti-metropolotitan elite) rant:
“Now tell me,” my uncle is saying, addressing me as if nobody else were there, “tell me, do your parents go in for this sort of thing? What I mean is, this kind of music? Concerts and the like? They ever pay money to sit down for a couple of hours and wear their bottoms out listening to something they wouldn’t recognize half a day later? Pay money simply to perpetrate a fraud? You ever know them to do that?”
Funnily enough, at Book Group, most of us loved Dear Life, save the youngest member and a Jungian therapist. But I’ll be reading more.