Thursday, May 26, 2011

Strip Jack by Ian Rankin

Strip Jack by Ian Rankin, 1992

Rebus was more than halfway there before he realized he was headed not for Stockbridge comforts and Patience Aitken, but for Marchmont and his own neglected flat. So be it. Inside the flat, the atmosphere managed to be both chill and stale. A coffee mug beside the telephone resembled Glasgow insofar as it, too, was a city of culture, an interesting green and white culture.

But if the living room was growing mould, surely the kitchen would be worse. Rebus sat himself down in his favourite chair, stretched for the answering machine, and settled to listen to his calls. There weren't many. Gill Templer, wondering where he was keeping himself these days. . . as if she didn't know. His daughter Samantha, phoning from her new flat in London, giving him her address and telephone number. Then a couple of calls where the speaker had decided not to say anything.

"Be like that then." Rebus turned off the machine, drew a notebook from his pocket, and, reading the number from it, telephoned Gregor Jack. He wanted to know why Jack hadn't said anything about his own anonymous calls. Strip Jack. . . beggar my neighbour. . . Well, if someone
were out to beggar Gregor Jack, Jack himself didn't seem overly concerned. He didn't exactly seem resigned, but he did seem unbothered. Unless he was playing a game with Rebus. . . And what about Rab Kinnoul, on-screen assassin? What was he up to all the time he was away from his wife? And Ronald Steele, too, a 'hard man to catch.' Were they all up to something? It wasn't that Rebus distrusted the human race. . . wasn't just that he was brought up a Pessimisterian. He was sure there was something happening here; he just didn't know what it was. ---(page 74)

Strip Jack is the fourth novel in the Rebus series and it's clear that, with this volume, Ian Rankin is settling in for the long haul. Recurring characters and storylines are being tied together, and the world of John Rebus's Edinburgh is becoming clearly defined. It's nice to see that the groundwork is being lain for the series to have an increased level of continuity. The previous three books in the series--all fantastic--were perhaps a bit uneven in terms of recurring elements.

I mention this development because I couldn't be happier with how the Rebus books are progressing. Wikipedia informs me that the series runs no less than seventeen books, which makes me feel like a drug addict who's just wandered into a massive marijuana greenhouse.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: these books are So Freaking Good. As I've finished each one, I've thought, Well, the next one can't possibly be this good. Strip Jack, with it's whodunit-style plot and marginally lighter tone, represents a slight change of pace from its predecessors--but then, each book has taken things in a new and invariably exciting direction.

When a raid on a high-class Edinburgh brothel reveals that beloved MP Gregor Jack has a dark secret, the public is shocked and the tabloids thrilled. John Rebus can't help but be fascinated by Jack, a man who is either a cold-hearted schemer or an innocent victim of a frame job, so when Jack is implicated in a close-to-home murder investigation, Rebus sets out to uncover the real killer and figure out who wants to strip Gregor Jack of his career.

Knots and Crosses brought emotional revelation and intense, psychological drama, Hide and Seek brought a tangled plot and dark horrors and Tooth and Nail brought grisly, fast-paced suspense. Strip Jack is altogether lighter fare ("lighter" being a highly relative term), more of a cerebral, character-based puzzle, more of a classic mystery than the previous three.

Rankin handles the plot beautifully, with a wide suspect pool of quirky characters and plenty of clues and clever misdirection. I absolutely love the fact that he has Rebus deliver the standard unraveling-and-deduction at the end, which turns out to be totally wrong. The eventual solution is a singularly satisfactory one, especially after the ingenious "false climax," which has always been one of my favorite literary devices.

But even though the plotting is excellent, it's Rankin's consummate skill with characterization and those small, lifelike details that makes the novel so enchanting. Rebus deals with the annoying realities of everyday life: a difficult romantic relationship, lack of sleep, a terrible car, a dumb boss, bad food, bad weather, his own impending middle age. Rankin knows that the mystery elements become more compelling when they're grounded in such a recognizable world.

The Rebus of Strip Jack is definitely in a better place than the Rebus of the first few books. Even though he's still gloomy and cynical, he has a fairly steady romance going (for him, at least) and none of the sexual hang-ups that have plagued him in the past. It's interesting to see him in a better place, although it's already clear that he will sabotage his relationship with Patience with his loner tendencies and obsessive work habits.

Ian Rankin novels are hard to review, because it's difficult not to just rattle off a laundry list of things I liked. Strip Jack is another winner, another little masterpiece of mood and pacing and satisfying resolution, shot through with fantastic characters and knife-sharp dialogue. And now let the wait for number five begin.

NEXT UP: Sara Gruen's blockbuster, Water for Elephants.

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