Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reading John Rebus

Photo of novelist Ian Rankin with a copy of his book Exit MusicInspector John Rebus is a man evolving and devolving, drowning in sadness and loss but still managing to solve intersecting crimes that expose the underside of the Scottish capital city he loves. In 17 novels, Ian Rankin has explored both Rebus and Edinburgh, as Rebus ages ungracefully and Edinburgh is constantly reborn.

Meet John Rebus

I discovered Rebus during a Scotland visit in 2007. The house I stayed in had shelves and shelves of books, but one title sprang out at me even though it was just one spine among many: Fleshmarket Close. I'm always a sucker for a great title, and this one was racy but enigmatic. Sightseeing in Edinburgh a few days later, I realized Fleshmarket Close was the name of a narrow street that runs off the Royal Mile. It had literally been a fleshmarket, where meat had been sold.

I bought a copy of the book not long after returning home (the name was changed to Fleshmarket Alley for the U.S. market, unfortunately) and was hooked. I scrounged every title I could find at the library, reading forwards and backwards in Rebus's timeline.

I managed to read seven of the 17 books this way, completely out of sequence, but I had entered Rebus's life only a few titles before the last book, so it was a less than ideal way to meet the guy. A few months ago, after reading one of the earliest books (number 4, Strip Jack) I wandered into the Minneapolis mystery bookstore Once Upon a Crime and found they had the entire set. On impulse, I bought every book I hadn't read. I've been working my way through them ever since.

The Books

I don't usually read murder mysteries or police procedurals, and if my introduction to Rebus had been the first novel, Knots and Crosses, I doubt I would have read the others. It's not bad; it's just typical of everything I assume about the genre -- too tight a plot, too many coincidences, a character with an emotional life that feels a little too contrived.

The third book, Tooth and Nail, is my least favorite, because it forces the reader into a first-person account of a serial killer. No thanks -- that's not something I want to read again. But I knew that Rankin never used this technique in the later books, so I put up with it.

Somewhere around or just after number 4, Strip Jack, Rankin finally found the real inner life of John Rebus and also learned to plot his stories in what appears to be an effortless way. It's amazing how he can pull apparently unrelated events together into a single, interrelated chain of events without forcing the pegs into their holes.

I don't ever want to see the television series that has been made; I guess that shows how much I admire the books. I can't stand to see how they would be simplified.

The Language

Late in my reading, I started keeping a list of words I was learning from the books. I wish I'd thought of this sooner, because I'm sure there were lots of others.

Irn-bru -- I never looked this up until I'd read at least nine of the books. From the context, I knew it was some type of drink, but I didn't realize it is a bright orange soft drink that's come to be a symbol of Scotland, standing up to the invasion of Coca-Cola and other multinational brands. Daughter Number Three-Point-One has tried some (as it's sold in the U.S.) and says it tastes like a melted popsicle mixed with cough syrup.

setts -- quarried stones used to create a paved street. Different from cobblestones, which are naturally shaped. Referenced frequently in the books because they must make for a jarring drive. Before looking it up, I had imagined they were some type of traffic-calming device or directional barrier that kept people from driving the wrong way on a one-way street. So much for figuring it out meaning from context.

harled -- the walls of buildings are sometimes described as harled, which is a time-tested Scottish method of making maintenance-free exteriors. According to the Wikipedia, the harling process involves plaster, pebbles, and lime wash and results in a surface that breathes, so it won't crack in the cold Scottish winter.

thrawn -- a Scottish word for crooked/twisted/misshapen or perverse/contrary. If you Google it you'll also find out it's the name of a Star Wars villain.

invigilator -- according to the Free Dictionary, this is "someone who watches examination candidates to prevent cheating." Which I gather is a term commonly known in the U.K. With our current test hysteria in the U.S., I suppose this will soon come into vogue here, too.

The City

Rebus gives the reader an anti-grand tour of Edinburgh, including many visits to the public housing projects that are never on a tourist's list of sights, the docks, bridges, parks, rock outcroppings, not to mention the libraries, prisons, and many a public house.

The last half-dozen books take place during the half-decade or so when the Scottish Parliament building was being planned, built or had just opened, and the change in that part of the city is described in vivid detail.

Photo of the Scottish Parliament building, shot from Arthur's Seat
The post-modern Parliament building, adjoining the historic Queensberry House with the red roof. One of the Rebus murders is set in Queensberry House. On Calton Hill in the background are the Nelson Monument (left) and National Monument (right). Photo by Ed O'Keefe

I have to go back, now that I've learned so much more about the place. I'll just be sure not to visit during the Edinburgh Festival in August, which all the locals, including Rebus, hate and try to avoid.


Here's a list of all the novels, taken from the Inspector Rebus Wikipedia page:

1. Knots and Crosses (1987)
2. Hide and Seek (1991)
3. Tooth and Nail (original title Wolfman) (1992)
4. Strip Jack (1992)
5. The Black Book (1993)
6. Mortal Causes (1994)
7. Let it Bleed (1996)
8. Black and Blue (1997)
9. The Hanging Garden (1998)
10. Dead Souls (1999)
11. Set in Darkness (2000)
12. The Falls (2001)
13. Resurrection Men (2002)
14. A Question of Blood (2003)
15. Fleshmarket Close (published in the USA as Fleshmarket Alley) (2004)
16. The Naming of the Dead (2006)
17. Exit Music (2007)

Plus two short story collections A Good Hanging and Beggars's Banquet, and some other short stories as yet uncollected.

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