Friday, October 29, 2010

Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin

Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin, 1990

The first novel in Ian Rankin's celebrated Inspector Rebus series, Knots and Crosses, (1987), blew me away with its emotional power, well-written mystery and its compelling, complex main character.

I'm tempted to say that Hide and Seek is even better. It is not as emotional or as quite as psychologically complicated, but it is a riveting, dark look at a rotting city, as well as being an excellent, ever-twisting mystery. It's a small masterpiece of crime fiction.

John Rebus, a detective in the Scottish city of Edinburgh, arrives on the scene of an apparent overdose, a drug-addicted young man who lies dead surrounded by signs of Satanic worship.

Rebus thinks there's more to the case than a simple overdose. With the aid of the deceased's rebellious girlfriend and a wary young constable, Rebus follows a trail of drugs, blackmail, occultism and murder, a trail that leads from the city's lowest depths to its most affluent heights.

The most important thing in a mystery novel is the mystery itself, and this one's a doozy. Rankin is a master of pacing. He doesn't go for big action scenes, but there's an undercurrent of constant danger that keeps you frantically flipping pages.

The detective is the second-most important component of the mystery novel, and in John Rebus, Rankin has hit a gold mine. Rebus is cranky, lonely, self-destructive and often cruel to his inferiors at the police station, yet he's a surprisingly likable protagonist. He's the kind of fascinating character that I would willingly follow through fifteen or twenty books.

The large cast of supporting characters is equally well-drawn. One of the highlights of the novel for me was the partnership of Rebus and young, up-and-coming constable Brian Holmes. Their relationship never became a one-dimensional buddy-movie rivalry; it's nuanced and understated.

Rankin's prose and dialogue is as quirky and razor-sharp as in the previous installment, a nice combination of readable and poetic:

What was it the old man, Vanderhyde, had said said? Something about muddying the water. Rebus had the gnawing feeling that the solution to these many conundrums was a simple one, as crystal clear as one could wish. The problem was that extraneous stories were being woven into the whole. Do I mix my metaphors? Very well then, I mix my metaphors. All that counted was getting to the bottom of the pool, muddy or no, and bringing up that tiny cache of treasure called the truth.

He knew, too, that the problem was one of classification. He had to break the interlinked stories into separate threads, and work from those. At the moment, he was guilty of trying to weave them all into a pattern, a pattern that might not be there. By separating them all, maybe he'd be in with a chance of solving each.
---(pages 152-153)

Perhaps best of all, the novel's conclusion is perfect, a difficult feat to pull off in a mystery novel. The central puzzle is satisfyingly resolved, we get a short, intense burst of action and then some sly set-up for the rest of the series.

As much as I enjoyed Knots and Crosses, Hide and Seek is in some ways a stronger, more mature novel. It's a thrilling, sometimes shockingly deep ride into the dark side of humanity, and I loved every page.

NEXT UP: The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett.

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