Monday, January 23, 2012

Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin

Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin, 1994

His eyes were closed. If he opened them he knew he would see flecks of his own blood against the whitewashed wall, the wall which seemed to arch toward him. His toes were still moving against the ground, dabbling in warm blood. Whenever he tried to speak, he could feel his face cracking: dried salt tears and sweat.

It was strange, the shape your life could take. You might be loved as a child but still go bad. You might have monsters for parents but grow up pure. His life had been neither one nor the other. Or rather, it had been both, for he'd been cherished and abandoned in equal measure. He was six, and shaking hands with a large man. There should have been more affection between them, but somehow there wasn't. He was ten, and his mother was looking tired, bowed down, as she leaned over the sink washing dishes. Not knowing he was in the doorway, she paused to rest her hands on the rim of the sink. He was thirteen, and being initiated into his first gang. They took a pack of cards and skinned his knuckles with the edge of the pack. They took it in turns, all eleven of them. It hurt until he belonged.

Now there was a shuffling sound. And the gun barrel was touching the back of his neck, sending out more waves. How could something be so cold? He took a deep breath, feeling the effort in his shoulder-blades. There couldn't be more pain than he already felt. Heavy breathing close to his ear, and then the words again.

Nemo me impune lacessit.'---- (pages 5-6)

The great thing about the recurring series character is the pleasure of an established world and cast. No one would argue that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wasn't a gifted mystery writer, but it's the beautifully structured little universe of 221b Baker Street that caught the reader's imagination. Agatha Christie could spin out a whodunit with the best of them, yet her most successful novels, most fans would agree, are the ones featuring Poirot or Miss Marple, sleuths whose habits and methods are well established. Ian Rankin's Rebus series is likewise structured, although with more complexity than Doyle's world, or Christie's. Each Rebus novel is a treat just because we get to re-enter the world of Rankin's Edinburgh and the large cast of coppers, criminals and civilians who inhabit it.

Once you feel an affinity for a particular fictional character or universe, it sometimes becomes easier to criticize the plots as not being worthy of the characters, or not measuring up to what came before. With each Harry Potter book, readers held their breath, willing J.K. Rowling to spin a story that lived up to the rest of the series (the fact that she did, every single time, is one of the many, many things I love about the Potter books). Mortal Causes is the sixth book in the Rebus series, and it has a tall order to fill, considering how much I've loved some of the past installments. Causes, like Strip Jack and The Black Book, is a bit of letdown in terms of plot, despite some great elements and a handful of truly memorable moments.

Edinburgh's yearly Festival, a citywide event that attracts thousands of tourists, is in full swing when a gruesomely tortured body is discovered in a subterranean street. John Rebus is one of the first on the scene and the mode of execution immediately suggests paramilitary terrorists. Sectarian radicals, both Catholic and Protestant, have been waging a furious war in the UK, and the Scottish Crime Squad suspects that the victim was executed by a mysterious group of terrorists known as the Shield. Working for two separate agencies and hounded by gangsters, Rebus digs into the mystery and discovers a vast network of violent extremists with something deadly planned for this year's Festival.

While most of the Rebus novels are more classic murder-mystery narratives, Causes is set up as more of a thriller, with terrorists, spies and multiple government agencies in play. Unfortunately, the book's plot is choppy and a bit schizophrenic. Rankin packs a lot of characters and a lot of narrative into one relatively short novel, and the result is an overstuffed story with too many divergent subplots and separate threads. Rankin never totally commits to the thriller-like elements, instead vacillating between missing grenade launchers and routine police work. He can do ticking-time-bomb plots as well as anyone (Tooth and Nail is a compact, spring-loaded serial killer thriller), but Causes lacks the urgency its story requires. If the book was longer, the tangled plot threads and two dozen significant characters might have had time to breathe. Barely three hundred pages isn't enough.

Rankin's clue-dropping remains adept; he's very good at making an offhand reference to something that later proves vitally significant in a way that doesn't feel too obvious. It's his plotting that's a bit of a mess--haphazard,sprawling and overly intricate. It can be fun to follow all of his little threads, but it can also be tiring and confusing. In these last couple of books, Rankin seems to have trouble giving the reader a clear picture of the story; everything seems jumbled in pell-mell.

Luckily, those separate elements, while not combined very smoothly, are usually pretty great on their own. The addition of Big Ger Cafferty to the mix adds a nice undercurrent of danger and a sense of continuity to the novel. Cafferty's weird, half-friendly rivalry with Rebus promises to be a really interesting story for the future. I also quite liked the return to the Pilmuir ghetto, now with a new youth center that seems to be doing more bad than good. It's an interesting little slice of Edinburgh life, and I would have appreciated it if it had been more neatly folded into the plot. The major "mole" reveal is another reasonably well-handled element; it's definitely unexpected, although it might have made more of an impact if the character in question had been more developed.

Causes is the first book in the series to rely heavily on 1990s current events as a backdrop. The conflict between loyalist paramilitary groups, IRA-style terrorists and UK law enforcement is the heart of the story, as well as the longer-running contention between the Protestants and the Catholics. A lot of the finer points were somewhat lost on to me, since it's not a subject I know much about, and Rankin logically assumes that a UK audience will be familiar with the conflict. The fact that I was a bit behind on some of the context definitely made the book's plot a bit murkier for me. That's hardly a real fault (since Rankin isn't writing for international readers), and it wasn't even a major distraction. Rankin's portrait of a place torn apart by splintered forces who are fighting over ancient grievances is interesting in of itself, and Rebus's detached observations are as amusing as ever.

Rebus's home life definitely takes an odd turn in this installment. Now living with Patience in her cozy basement flat (his own taken over by the amorphous group of students from The Black Book), Rebus find his relationship with the good doctor becoming ever more distant and strained. Things become more complicated when Rebus begins a fling with an unhinged barrister, who quickly goes Fatal Attraction on the hapless DI when their relationship turns sour. It's kind of a weird plotline, one that I kept expecting to intersect with the main story (even though it never did). Rebus's erstwhile paramour spraying him with paint--although darkly funny--is a bit more over-the-top than Rankin's domestic stories usually are. It's the tense, unhappy, dysfunctional undercurrent between Rebus and Patience that elevates the plotline beyond a bit of texture. Rebus's inability to find a functional relationship, and his increasing dependence on alcohol, is becoming one of the series' hallmarks.

Mortal Causes is another solid installment in the Rebus series, but the instant-classic feel just isn't there. Despite its many good points, there's not a lot that's especially memorable or noteworthy; it's just an entertaining, well-written crime novel with a terrific protagonist and a good supporting cast. If it wasn't for the fact that I know Ian Rankin can do better, I would probably have been perfectly satisfied (plot holes and a lack of narrative cohesion aside). Causes may not be as good as some of its predecessors, but it's still good enough, certainly. Maybe looking for the novel to recapture the intensity and pitch-perfect plotting of some of the earlier ones is unfair and unreasonable, although inevitable when reading a series. I will try to go into the next installment with suitably lowered expectations.

NEXT UP: The final book of the Hunger Games, Mockingjay.

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