Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tooth and Nail by Ian Rankin

Tooth and Nail by Ian Rankin, 1992

It's always a shame to see a superior series go down the toilet. Ian Rankin's two previous John Rebus novels were brilliant, but Number Three, Tooth and Nail, is just not operating on the same level. The story is stale, the prose unreadable, the characters shallow and poorly characterized.

Ha. Just kidding. Tooth and Nail is every bit as eye-poppingly wonderful as its two predecessors. Ian Rankin has a seemingly bottomless arsenal of writing weapons: riveting plot twists, razor-sharp prose, fabulous characters and the best sense of place this side of Diana Gabaldon.

After successfully bringing down a serial murderer in Knots and Crosses, Inspector John Rebus has unwittingly gained a reputation as an expert on the subject. So when a vicious serial killer dubbed the 'Wolfman' begins haunting London, Rebus is called away from his native Edinburgh to a huge, foreign city of red herrings, hidden motives, secret connections and a deranged killer who eludes detectives at every turn.

Rankin is an undisputed master of his form, equal to any mystery writer I can come up with. His novels have weight and complexity and some truly fantastic writing coupled with wonderful plots. Tooth and Nail, like the previous works in the series, works on many levels at once. It's a spine-tingling mystery (and a great one), but it's also the story of a man cursed with hardship and solitude, and the uncomfortably close relationship between good and evil.

As always, Rebus is a mesmerizing main character, capable of being pathetic, prickly, cruel and lovable all at once. I'm fairly certain I could read a book like John Rebus Goes to the Grocery Store or John Rebus Waits at the Dentist's Office and still be entertained and involved just because of his presence in the story.

The other characters are all just as fascinating. In London detective George Flight, Rankin has created a character that I would gladly read a second series about. Ian Rankin has the rare gift of being able to instantly and subtly establish a character from their first appearance. This is an indispensable talent for a mystery writer, since the suspect pool feels so vital and fascinating.

A good plot is even more important to a good mystery than the characters, and Tooth and Nail has a fantastic plot. Rankin sends the reader on another ingenious roller coaster ride, where everyone's a suspect and everything's a clue. He had me convinced that half a dozen different characters were the Wolfman before the final reveal, and I still never guessed it. And the action climax? Perfection. Rankin is an amazing master of suspense, tension and, most importantly, satisfying resolution.

His prose is still amazing, crystal-clear, alternately funny and haunting. He will always find the offbeat, the quirky, the human in any situation, even during the chilling sections written from the Wolfman's perspective or the details of a gruesome autopsy:

Soon enough, the whole mess of matter was being put together again, and Rebus knew that by the time any grieving relatives viewed the mortal remains of Jean Cooper, the body would look quite natural.

As ever by the end of the autopsy the room had been reduced to silent introspection. Each man and woman present was made of the same stuff as Jean Cooper, and now they stood, momentarily stripped of their individual personalities. They were all bodies, all animals, all collections of viscera. The only difference between them and Jean Cooper was that their hearts still pumped blood. But one day soon enough each heart would stop, and that would be an end of it, save for the possibility of a visit to this butcher's shop, this abattoir.
---(page 35)

Not only is the novel's main plot fabulous, but its main subplot (a Rankin staple) is good, too. Rebus's rivalry with his daughter's motorcycle-riding boyfriend Kenny is yet another example of why Rankin is so excellent. The subplot works beautifully on its own as a funny, moving study of Rebus's relationship with his daughter Sam, but it also serves to further muddy the waters of the book's main story, since Rankin subtly hints several times that Kenny is the Wolfman.

Really, the overpowering awesomeness of Tooth and Nail can be summed up in one simple statement: I read it in less than twenty-four hours. The plot is propulsive in the best kind of way. You're not reading like crazy because there's a gunfight every other page, but because you care so much about what's going on.

I don't think any mystery author I've ever read leaves me quite as fully satisfied on as many levels as Rankin. Why this man isn't touted as the new king of crime fiction is beyond me. Tooth and Nail is more proof--as if any is needed--that the John Rebus series is something special. And if it keeps being this good, I'm going to run out of superlatives to use in these reviews.

NEXT UP: A novel where no one is likely to be shot, stabbed, blown up or strangled: Anne Rivers Siddons' Outer Banks.

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