Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Black Book by Ian Rankin

The Black Book by Ian Rankin, 1993

The hotel had once been a traveller's paradise. It was sited on Princes Street, no distance at all from Waverly Station, and so had become a travelling businessman's home-from-home. But in its latter years, the Central had seen business decline. And as genuine business declined, so disingenuous business took over. It was no real secret that the Central's stuffy rooms could be hired by the hour or the afternoon. Room service would provide a bottle of champagne and as much talcum powder as any room's tenants required.

In other words, the Central had become a knocking-shop, and by no means a subtle one. It also catered to the town's shadier elements in all shapes and forms. Wedding parties and stag nights were held for a spread of the city's villains, and underage drinkers could loll in the lounge bar for hours, safe in the knowledge that no honest copper would stray inside the doors. Familiarity bred further contempt, and the lounge bar started to be used for drug deals, and other even less savoury deals too, so that the Central Hotel became something more than a mere knocking-shop. It turned into a swamp.

A swamp with an eviction order over its head.

The police couldn't turn a blind eye forever and a day, especially when complaints from the public were rising by the month. And the more trash was introduced to the Central, the more trash was produced by the place. Until almost no real drinkers went there at all. If you ventured into the Central, you were looking for a woman, cheap drugs, or a fight. And God help you if you weren't.

Then, as had to happen, one night the Central burnt down. This came as no surprise to anyone; so much so that reporters on the local paper hardly bothered to cover the blaze. The police, of course, were delighted. The fire saved them having to raid the joint.

But the next morning there was a solitary surprise; for though all the hotel's staff and customers had been accounted for, a body turned up amongst the charred ceilings and roofbeams. A body that had been burnt out of all recognition.

A body that had been dead when the fire started.
--- (pages 30-31)

The Black Book is a very good crime novel, like all of Ian Rankin's books. The plot engages and holds your interest throughout, the characters are as vibrant as always and John Rebus' personal life takes center stage. There seems to be everything a fan of the Rebus series needs. So why did The Black Book, good as it was, leave me feeling a bit disappointed?

As usual, John Rebus's life, both personal and professional, is a mess. His girlfriend has kicked him out, just as his brother Michael returns to Edinburgh to crash in his flat (already rented out to several college students). When Rebus's friend and colleague, Brian Holmes, is brutally attacked, he begins digging into a ten-year old arson case with an unsolved murder attached. As the plot thickens and the bodies stack up, Rebus finds himself once again on the trail of the truth, with a dangerous gangster intent on either framing him or getting him out of the way.

I'll do the good first. There's certainly plenty to like about The Black Book, which is as readable and well-written as anything you're likely to find in the genre. I especially liked the emphasis on Rebus's chaotic home life and relationship with Michael, who hasn't shown up since Knots and Crosses. Rankin remains excellent at reflecting how the little things in life (like sharing a messy flat with five other people) can reflect on everything else.

The addition to the cast of Siobhan Clarke, a new officer under Rebus's supervision, is also totally successful and I very much like the way that Rankin has gradually built up the world of Rebus's police station, complete with petty politics and rivalries. Rebus being Rebus, naturally he gets pulled into more than one conflict with superiors. At least Clarke seems to be his ally for now (and possibly a love interest down the line?).

Another new character introduced is "Big Ger" Cafferty, a notorious gangster that we've been hearing about for several books now, and a figure that I believe turns out to be the series' Big Bad in the future. Cafferty doesn't disappoint; he's a suitably quirky nemesis for the equally quirky Rebus. Here's a man capable of stunningly brutal violence one minute, and general chumminess the next. The scene where Rebus goes jogging with him is delightfully weird and deliciously tense.

While the ancillary elements in The Black Book may be stellar, the main plot has problems. Unlike Strip Jack, which kept its focus squarely on Gregor Jack, Book juggles new characters, myriad plot threads (some of them only loosely related) and dozens of clues and misdirects. As a result, the plot feels looser and less foolproof than in previous installments. There are too many coincidences and Dickens-style tenuous connections propping up the plot, which also, unforgivably, lacks the gut-punch climax that I've come to expect from the Rebus series. Not that the ending isn't good (it mixes together several separate plot strands in a satisfying way), it's just not the car-chasing, house-burning, glass-punching finale that the previous books had conditioned me to be waiting for.

The other main thing that bothered me about Book (and about Strip Jack, too) is the subtle. . . mellowing. Rankin has stepped away from some of the unusual choices that made the first three books so damned good: Rebus's amorality and general loser-ness, the raw emotional power of the stories, the grit and darkness of the themes. There's a comparatively lighter touch here, and in Strip Jack, a broader feel, a greater conventionality, if that makes any sense. The Black Book reads as a more standard crime novel than its predecessors. That feeling of taking a peek into the fiery pits of human evil (and the equally strange world of the man who fights it) is missing. The solution to the central mystery is not scorching or horrifying or emotional; it's shrug-worthy.

I know that what this is is Rankin settling the series down for a prolonged run, which he probably wasn't anticipating earlier. Keeping up the early books' intensity and bleakness for twenty-plus novels would probably have been impossible, if not downright unsatisfying. I think Rankin still has the old craziness in him--he's just decided to pull it out less often.

The Black Book, then, is perhaps a bit of a series placeholder. The dip in quality is not that enormous or shocking--it's still a great read and would look even better if its predecessors hadn't been so excellent. A tighter plot and more emotional oomph is what I'm looking for from Mortal Causes. I don't want to sound like I don't appreciate how good Ian Rankin is. Because I do. Even at his weakest (and Book is the weakest novel of the series), he can still blow 95% of his competition out of the water.

NEXT UP: A short little potboiler, Make Death Love Me, from Ruth Rendell.

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