With the publication of Exit Music four years ago, Edinburgh’s Inspector John Rebus went reluctantly, cantankerously into retirement. At that time, his publishers proclaimed that we would see no more of Rebus. Best-selling series author Ian Rankin was certain that there would be no more Rebus novels. And yet, here is Standing in Another Man’s Grave, a brand-new Rebus novel. What happened?
Various things happened, says Rankin. The first is that 2012 marked 25 years since the publication of the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses. The second is that Rankin “got an idea for a story that seemed to be a cold case and I knew in my heart that that was what Rebus was doing.” And finally, a policeman told Rankin that Edinburgh was raising the retirement age for cops, which meant that Rebus would be able to apply for reinstatement in the force.
Rebus, whose career in the Criminal Investigation Department utterly dominated his life, would obviously not have spent the intervening years quietly beekeeping in the country; rather, he has joined Edinburgh’s cold case unit, which is staffed by retired cops turned uneasy civilians. And, naturally, when he decides to investigate Nina Hazlitt’s claim that her daughter’s disappearance several years ago is linked to the disappearances of several other young women, he immediately begins interfering in the most recent case.
Meanwhile, Rebus only seems to have deepened his bizarrely collegial, incredibly fraught relationship with his nemesis, the (supposedly) retired crime lord “Big Ger” Cafferty, even going for a fortnightly drink with him. What drives this odd pairing? Rankin says the men are “two sides of the same coin. Cain and Abel….[They’re both] dinosaurs, the last of their breed. Younger, more intelligent, hungrier people are coming up behind them.”
One of those younger, hungry types is Malcolm Fox of “The Complaints”—what Americans would call the internal affairs department. Protagonist of two non-Rebus novels, The Complaints and The Impossible Dead, Fox makes an appearance here since he’s convinced that Rebus’ contact with Cafferty means that Rebus must be dirty.
Of course, readers know that he isn’t, but Rebus’ tendency to buck the rules and seek answers from the criminal element certainly looks a bit shady to the spectator and causes fresh trouble for his former subordinate, DI Siobhan Clarke, who, before Rebus’ renewed intrusion into her work, was actually doing quite well. “He’s always trying to screw things up for her,” Rankin notes. “But she wouldn’t allow him to do it if she didn’t have misgivings. He acts like her dad. They have lost touch, she has gone her own way, she’s doing well in her personal and professional life, and Rebus shows up. She knows he’s on the side of the angels, but if she helps him, it could stall her career. There’s an awkward dance those characters are doing.”
The background music for this particular dance is provided by the late Jackie Leven, a friend of Rankin’s to whom Rankin dedicated the book. Leven’s lyrics serve as epigrams throughout the novel, and the title is a mondegreen, a mishearing of Leven’s song “Standing in Another Man’s Rain.” Rankin confesses to mishearing lyrics since he was a child; this particular one caused him some trouble with his publishers, who felt that the title was too long. It was only when he pointed out that the similarly long title The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo hadn’t proved to be a detriment in English-speaking countries that he got away with it.
At the conclusion of the book, Rebus’ days as a cold case researcher appear to be numbered. But if Rebus can’t solve crimes, what else is there for him to do? Rebus “uses the job as a crutch, as a way of not having to think too hard about his own failings, his own problems,” Rankin says. “He’s a professional voyeur, peering into other’s lives, so he doesn’t have to look into the mirror.” If Rebus were American, he might consider becoming a private investigator—after all, he practically acts like one already. But alas, as Rankin points out, there is no PI tradition in the U.K.
Is it possible that Rebus’ ability to close cases will outweigh the more checkered parts of his record, and he’ll be allowed to rejoin the CID? One gets the sense that Rankin never wanted to retire Rebus in the first place. One of his mistakes, he says, was making Rebus too old in his first appearance. But Rankin doesn’t yet know if his next novel will include either Rebus or Malcolm Fox. “All I know,” Rankin says, “is that I’ve got to start writing next month.”
Amy Goldschlager is an editor and book/audiobook reviewer who lives in New York City and exists virtually at www.amygoldschlager.com. She has worked for several major publishers and has contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Locus, ComicMix, and AudioFile magazine.