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A LIFE'S WORK: IAN RANKIN

 

Our reviewers take a look over the extensive backlist of this exponent of literary crime 

A GOOD HANGING


This is a collection of short stories about John Rebus, Ian Rankin’s policeman from Edinburgh. Can you really fit a good detective story in twenty or thirty pages? Will it work? The short answer is that, yes, it does. I actually enjoyed the format and I liked the fact that it forced me to slow down my reading. You can’t read all the short stories in one go or they start to merge into one. If you take your time and read one or two each time you do them justice.

This is the first time I have read anything by Ian Rankin and I liked his way of painting a picture of a less-seen Scotland. It’s raw, it’s dirty and sometimes violent but without the over- explicit details. I recommend this book to anyone who likes a good mystery.

Jenny Magnusson, Sweden 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

There can few, if any, of the legion of crime fiction fans who have not heard of Detective Inspector John Rebus or his creator Ian Rankin; we have walked the not-so-salubrious streets of supposedly genteel Edinburgh in eighteen or so books and also seen them translated onto the television screen with the infamous DI first acted by John Hannah and then reincarnated, more believably in my opinion, by the shambling and nicotine stained Ken Stott.

Rebus shouldn’t work. The characterisation, being that of a police officer working on the edge of, if not on occasion, nearly outside, the law, helped by an at first unwilling but then unbelievably faithful side-kick, is old hat. He drinks, more often than not a pint and a whisky chaser, he smokes, he likes jazz and rock music, he is divorced and often has improper relationships with women connected to the case he is working on. He is a loner, an outsider and a curmudgeon yet not only solves cases but still has, despite years of experiencing the seamier side of life, the best of intentions and a yearning to make a difference and to right wrongs.

The fact that not only does it work, but works brilliantly, is a testament to the creative powers of Ian Rankin OBE, an author whose face is as nearly as well-known as his main character. I wouldn’t have described myself as a fan of Rebus; yet I find when looking at the list of publications that I have, in fact, read most of them and, of those, enjoyed all.

As a writer of short stories myself, I was interested to see how such a huge character would fit himself and his journey through the plot, with its twists, turns and inevitable dead ends, into the short story format; almost like wondering if Robbie Coltraine (another Scots tipped to play the character at one time) would ever fit into a Smart car. Would this collection of short stories be Rebus on an off day? Would the crimes depicted be those he solved by simply turning up at the scene, seeing the obvious culprit and then slinking off to the Oxford Bar for a not-so-well-earned drink?

The answer is, as one would expect from a writer of Rankin’s calibre, a resounding no. The stories are short but succinct; and the subject matter diverse; from the hanging of the title to the witnessing of a possible miracle.  My own personal favourite Being Frank concerns the somewhat crazed mutterings of a tramp that lead to prevention rather than detection of crime on Rebus’ own doorstep and which ends with an almost wistful contemplation of needs, wants and the way life is lead on the edge of society. In between we are treated to insights into the solitary but not necessarily lonely life of two men and the acoustic qualities of an Edinburgh stairwell. Beautiful stuff.

If you’re one of those rare unfortunates who haven’t encountered the DI previously, this will undoubtedly whet your whistle and leave you thirsty for more; if you are a seasoned consumer of Rankin’s Finest, then these twelve shorts are a perfect accompaniment. Sláinte!

Ian McLoughlin

A QUESTION OF BLOOD


The plot is a spider’s web of storylines with a perfect blend of the case Rebus and Siobhan are working on, their personal lives, and all the murky areas that exist in between. Rankin has created a complex character in Rebus. The reader can learn as much about Rebus from the things he does and the music he  

listens to, as from the way other people react towards him and his intriguing relationship with Siobhan. The ending was totally unexpected, but gave a whole new perspective on what initially seemed like a cut and dried school killing. The last chapter shows how frustrating the British legal system can be and Rankin is never afraid to explore such areas. Overall the good plot, gripping writing style and interesting characters make this an  excellent read.

Victoria Brown

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

BLACK AND BLUE


Rankin uses real cases in this book, which I felt uneasy about.

This is a long and ambitious novel because of the number of stories involved. Firstly, Rebus is being

investigated for the possible framing of a suspect; Rebus is also unofficially investigating a series of unsolved killings attributed to ‘Bible John’ and what appears to be a copycat serial killer now on the loose, ‘Johnny Bible’. In turn, ‘Bible John’ is trying to track down Johnny Bible. When Rebus is not investigating these cases he has an official one of his own, that of the murder of an oil worker.

I felt that characterisation and style were the losers to these numerous plotlines and struggled to remember all the characters. This may appeal to Rebus fans but I didn’t find it engaging.

Claire Thomas 

Personal Read: Three Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

 

DID YOU KNOW?


Rankin chose a Traditional American Pinball machine as his luxury to take along with his discs to a desert island.

A COOL HEAD (QUICK READS)


I love Rankin’s Rebus books so was surprised at this one, which is very different and unusual. Quick Reads are bite-sized books written by bestselling writers, intended for ‘avid readers and those who never had or who have lost the reading habit’, who want a quick, fast- paced read.

Gravy, who has learning disabilities, works at the graveyard. One day, his friend Benjy turns up in a strange car with a bullet hole in his chest, asks Gravy to hide his gun and then dies. Gravy is left with the body and the car, in which he finds blood, a balaclava, a bag full of money and a lady’s name and address.

It is an interesting read – Rankin depicts Gravy’s character particularly well. It certainly moves at a fast pace, but I think Rebus fans would be disappointed if they bought this!

Lynn Latham 

Personal Read: 2 Stars

Group Read: 2 Stars

First impressions - a very short read, half an hour maximum, ideal for a short train journey or lunch-break read, but sadly not one I enjoyed. To be honest I expected more from someone of Rankin's talent. A straightforward plot, someone gets murdered, people get hurt, the mob is out to get it's money back, quite predictable really. I appreciate in a book of its short length there isn't really much room for a suspenseful plot development or any sort of in-depth character description, which I did miss. The language is simple and straightforward and my impression was that this is a book written to appeal to a mass audience. I disliked the short chapters and the way each one was headlined to sum up what was going to happen in it. Some may like this type of writing but sadly not me! The overall impression I gained was that Rankin had been asked to knock out a short story in a few hours and obliged without paying too much thought to it. I only say this because his other work (of which there is plenty) is detailed, exciting and well paced, and overall enjoyable! I think some readers would find it hard to follow the relationships between the numerous characters introduced in such a short book and also be disappointed that there was little substance to them. Apologies Mr Rankin but not one I would choose to read again, share with others or recommend to a friend.

Elaine Holland

EXIT MUSIC


A young girl discovers a body, her screams attracting an older couple. From that moment the investigation gathers pace, the action widening to take in foreign diplomats, MSPs, and directors of a major bank. It is thrilling stuff!

Meanwhile Rebus’s retirement is drawing ever nearer, so the case is allocated to Siobhan Clarke, normally Rebus’s second-in-command. However, it is clear who is really in control. The conclusion is both satisfying and electrifying; the events of Rebus’s final day are appropriate for such an unconventional detective.

I found this a real page-turner, fascinated by the realistic detail of the police methods, curious to learn what came next, how the apparent loose ends were all securely tied by the final page. The character of Rebus is a superb creation, and one about which I am determined to find out more.

Thelma Shacklady 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

KNOTS AND CROSSES


This, the first book in the Rebus series, is not so much about the abduction and murder of two young girls, but more about building the character of John Rebus. He smokes too many cigarettes, drinks too much in sleazy pubs and clubs, has rationed contact with his young daughter and a difficult relationship with his brother.

Rebus is a complex character having been in the army and then training with the SAS before joining the police. In this book his past continually haunts him and he fails to recognise the connections and clues being given to him until the climax. As a police officer he takes risks, one of which could have cost him his life and that of his daughter.

This was the first Ian Rankin book I had read, not being a lover of crime books, but I enjoyed the descriptions of Edinburgh and of the characters depicted.

Helen Davies 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

MORTAL CAUSES


Another excellent novel in the Inspector Rebus series. This particular one explores some hard-hitting themes including sectarianism in Scotland and its links with Canada, USA and Ireland, brutal murders, youth culture and police corruption. These are all incorporated into one plot with consummate ease by this accomplished author.

All the characters are well written and each scene can be vividly imagined. The plot is clear and easily followed yet intricate and complex as well. The novel is brought to a conclusion with fast-paced action but does not end too abruptly. A very cleverly written novel which draws you in right from the outset.

Adele Symonds 

Personl Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

 

DID YOU KNOW?


The ‘standard biography’ of Rankin, states that before becoming a full-time novelist he worked as a grape-picker, swineherd, taxman, alcohol researcher, hi-fi journalist, college secretary and punk musician.

STRIP JACK


When Gregor Jack, MP, is caught in one of the more upmarket brothels of Edinburgh, DI Rebus thinks this
is ‘just’ another seedy politician. But as the investigation unfolds, 
he begins to unravel a tale which shows that things are never as clear-cut as they should be.

The plotline is gritty, entrancing and menacing. The details of the story entwine around the reader engulfing you into a storyline that – for its time – is very graphic and quite haunting. Rankin uses imagery on the pages as an artist would on the screen. His characters come to life through the words, you find yourself transported through the scenes – I really was standing in the mortuary when the post mortems were carried out, standing in the room of the brothel as it was raided – there are very few authors who can truly carry this off well.

Emma-Dawn Farr 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

THE FALLS


I read this novel when it was first published in 2001, and it is even better second time around. Rankin is the best of the best, and The Falls is one of his finest.

Rebus, now looking upon the approach of retirement with dread, has to deal with the mystery of 19th-century ‘coffin dolls’, seemingly left at modern crime scenes, and The Quizmaster of a sinister online game, who may or may not be responsible for the disappearance of a student. Rebus is not exactly computer literate, so that task falls to the faithful DC Siobhan Clarke, who in turn is intrigued by the game, and also faces a crossroads in her own career.

The writing is a joy, and the cynical one-liners are just brilliant. The city of Edinburgh is as much a character as any other. If you have not read a Rebus book before, go for this one, if you have, then read it again. A very good one for reading groups as well. Top Rankin!

Ruth Ginarlis 

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

This book sustained me through a bout of flu. It is certainly one of Ian Rankin's best books, packed with historical detail but still very easy to read. I love the way he fleshes out even tiny cameo portraits of his characters and shows us around the Edinburgh landscape. Rebus, his detective is a classic creation, insightful and a loner but with human weakness and as influenced by music as Mr Rankin seems to be himself. There was an illuminating introduction to this edition informing us where some of his ideas were drawn from.

A student vanishes, an Internet role-playing game and some miniature coffins seem to be involved in her disappearance. The computer world is a mystery to Rebus but not to DC Siobahn Clarke who has a chance to come to the fore in this novel while Rebus is delving into the past.

I wondered if I would get the same pleasure rereading a book I had enjoyed when it was first published and I did.

This is not a potboiler but a novel of quality displaying the writer’s craft at it's best. I must revisit his other Rebus novels. I didn't think there was a huge amount to discuss in this book but there is a section at the end devoted to discussion questions.

Margaret Leigh, Shropshire

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

THE NAMING OF THE DEAD


This sixteenth novel featuring DI John Rebus is set over a period of nine days against a background of the 2005 G8 Summit at Gleneagles, the related riots, demonstrations and concerts in Edinburgh, and the London bombings. Add to this heady mix the apparent suicide of a Member of Parliament, big business interests, the arms trade, a serial killer, a contingent from Special Branch (to list but a few), and rule-breaking Rebus is in his element! 

As a real fan of Ian Rankin’s writing, I think he surpassed himself with this novel; the plot is cleverly constructed, and I found it more complex, far-ranging and thought-provoking than other stories in the Rebus series – a real page-turner!

Linda Hepworth 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

ian rankin

BEGGARS BANQUET


This short story collection does not disappoint. The seven Rebus stories cover familiar territory and in them we see Rebus with all his quirks and contradictions, working on the side of right but quite prepared to bend the rules. The other stories are written in Rankin’s characteristic style, peopled with wonderful characters and told from both sides of the law. All have that unexpected twist that Rankin does so well in all his fiction. There are also a couple of very different stories, and an additional bonus is Rankin’s introduction.

I would highly recommend this to any reader who enjoys Rankin’s work in particular, and crime writing in general.

Willow Thomas 

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

BLOOD HUNT


Gordon Reeve, an ex-SAS soldier, travels to America following the death of his journalist brother. When he arrives, all is not as it seems and the author draws you into a web of intrigue as it becomes apparent that the official cause of death of suicide is a cover-up. Gordon faces a race against time to find out who wanted his brother dead and why.

This is the first Ian Rankin novel I have read, and I found it very enjoyable. The story moves along at a rate of knots and has many twists and turns. It was first published in 1995 and some of the references to contemporary technology, such as computer floppy disks, do date it but this did not detract from the story.

This is a great personal read and with the gripping plot together with the underlying environmental issues that are an integral part of the story, there is plenty for a reading group to discuss.

Julie Drewett

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

DOORS OPEN


Mike McKenzie is a successful, bored, self- made millionaire who is enticed into planning an art heist. There is a large cast of supporting characters including a maverick cop who doesn’t quite play by the rules – the kind of character Rankin does best. Mike soon discovers that there is no such thing as the perfect crime as everyone starts to get greedy and secrets start to be uncovered.

Doors Open is perhaps not as immediately engaging as the Rebus novels but the reader is soon drawn in by the clever twists in the story. Rankin uses an entertaining style which will have you wondering just how everything will resolve itself. It is carefully plotted with all the storylines neatly tying together.

Joanne Baird 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

An audacious crime; planned and executed by amateurs! On the face of it, the perfect crime but…

Mike Mackenzie, self-made millionaire conspires with two friends, Allan Cruikshank a banker and Professor Robert Gissing, head of an Edinburgh college of art to 'repatriate' works of art from their storage in a warehouse. This is to take place during the city's Open Doors day when high profile establishments open their doors to the general public. The warehouse is one of these.

A perfect crime because not only will they steal the original paintings, they will replace them with copies! To this end, a student know to Gissing is also recruited; he is a very good copiest of works of art and is lured in by the promise of a painting for himself, cash and a guaranteed pass with honours at the end of his time at art college.

So far so good, but then members of the criminal fraternity get involved as well!

Another good read from Ian Rankin. Although I first thought that it was going to be a Rebus novel, it transpired that he had retired before this crime and was only referred to in passing; didn't miss him though!

Many twists and turns as the plot unfolded with more than a hint of Ealing Comedy; this would make for good television! Difficult to put down and in fact I finished it in just three sittings, always the sign of a good book to me.

Very enjoyable and would make a good book-club subject as one of the lighter reads, despite the small amount of violence towards the end of the book.

Good twist at the end!

Dilys Killick

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

HIDE AND SEEK


This is the second in the Rebus series. Called to the discovery of a young, dead junkie on a derelict housing estate, Rebus doesn’t just dismiss it as another overdose, and his tenacity leads him down a confusing maze of deceit and sleaze amongst Edinburgh’s wealthy elite and powerful, and Edinburgh is as much the main character of the books as Rebus.

Having read so many of the books, this early one lacked the depth, the subtleties, the assuredness of writing that comes as the series develops, but I still wanted to keep turning the pages and read more, although I thought the denouement not entirely convincing. It is a good, promising start to what becomes an excellent series.

Fiona Allison 

Personal Read: Three Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

 

DID YOU KNOW?


Rankin also writes under the name of Jack Harvey.

LET IT BLEED


The book starts with a bang on a high speed car chase through the icy streets of Edinburgh, ending with the dramatic deaths of two young men. An apparently unconnected suicide at a Councillor’s surgery sets Inspector John Rebus on an investigation which will encompass politicians, businessmen as well as those from the seamier sides of life.

It is the seventh of the Rebus series and although it is a standalone story, I was missing a lot of the backstory, which would have given more depth to Rebus himself and the other regular characters.

The writing is excellent and the Edinburgh winter brought to shivering life. But the plot seemed to lack pace and became bogged down in detailed explanations of political structures. Overall, I enjoyed it and would definitely read another Rebus but don’t think this was the place to begin the series.

Rebecca Kershaw 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

 

DID YOU KNOW?


Ian always writes with music playing. So that song lyrics don’t interfere with his writing he chooses mostly instrumental works.

SET IN DARKNESS


A body is discovered on an Edinburgh building site, thought to have been hidden there about twenty years ago. DI John Rebus begins his investigation; DI Linford is also assigned to it. A few days later another body is discovered, a prospective MSP Roddy Grieve. An investigation into a serial rapist is also ongoing, and the suicide of a homeless man is added to the caseload.

This is the eleventh Rebus novel, but the first I have ever read. I found it an easy read but feel there must be a lot of history between the various characters that I was unaware of, although the plot was still understandable. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read the previous books, but it was still a pleasant way to pass a few hours!

Alison Wearden 

Personal Read: Three Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

THE BLACK BOOK


This book is almost 20 years old, and in some parts does seem dated, (using a pay phone to contact someone). But the plot is very up to date, with Mr Big type villains with fingers in lots of pies around Edinburgh where the book is set. This is number five in the series but is perfectly readable on its own. Rebus becomes involved in an unsolved case from five years earlier. A hotel burns down and the suspected insurance fire turns to a murder enquiry when a body is found.

There are lots of different threads to the story and in parts it was hard to follow but gradually each piece falls into place. We really get a feel for Edinburgh, and not just the respectable side on show for the tourists.

There is a lot of subtle joking and Rebus has a good sense of humour. We learn a lot about his personal life, which I also liked. I did enjoy this but not greatly. If I were to read any more Rebus books I would pick a more recent one.

Fiona Atley 

Personal Read: Three Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

THE HANGING GARDEN


Rebus is fighting his demons. Philosopher, policeman, father or lover, his life is the roller coaster readers have come to expect and enjoy. With WW2 criminals, gang warfare, illegal immigrants, and Japanese mafia this lone wolf of a crusty copper has plenty to challenge him without battling with drink and worrying about his daughter in a coma.

Rankin weaves the disparate threads of the story into an intricate tapestry. Characterisation is vivid with credible baddies that chill the reader to the bone. Crammed with adventure this is a page-turner. From the first sentence I was hooked.

The writing is tight and the story moves at a rapid pace. There are horrific scenarios but Rankin’s superb metaphors conjure up lighter moments with subtle images. Ian Rankin never disappoints.

Sheila A Grant 

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

 

DID YOU KNOW?


Ian Rankin supported the Royal Blind’s Light Relief Week appeal by auctioning the chance for a fan to appear as a character in
a future novel. This could include being an incidental character, a criminal mastermind, or possibly a murder victim.

THE RESURRECTION MEN


Rebus is sent to the National Police Training College joining a group of recalcitrant senior police officers being re-trained in modern ‘team-working’ – a cover, apparently, looking into possible corruption. They

are given a cold case to work. Back in Edinburgh Rebus’s team, and colleague Siobhan, are working on another case that may interleave with this.

This is a solid, no-holds-barred, Rankin novel about policing. It could be read as a standalone, but its strength also lies as one of a series; the characters continually develop. Relationships are also forged, so this is a very people-based novel, although the themes – crime and its costs – are not light.

Why do I admire Rankin so much? He is a first-rate novelist and treats readers as thinking adults. All situations and relationships have a realistic complexity, all actions have a cost. The novels are also very much of their time – the politics of budgets, career building, and management-speak and increasing female presence – all brilliantly set within their Edinburgh landscape.

Hilary White 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

I am sure the legions of Ian Rankin’s fans will thoroughly enjoy this book but I am afraid it is not to my taste. I am sure Rankin’s fans would love this as a book club read, but as a general reader in a book club there is nothing much to discuss, in my opinion, as I find it to be rather predictable. I have carefully avoided the several Rebus series on television and also programmes like Cracker, Prime Suspect etc. I admit I am not a fan of crime fiction. However, I persevered with this novel and finished it in less than a week. I found it moderately entertaining and it did hold my attention, but I did not care for the stereotypical characters and the usual clichés of modern crime fiction; from bent cops to principal characters with troubled or complicated private lives and brutish crime bosses with a veneer of culture. The plot was carefully constructed and quite believable except at the end when I thought Rebus’ escape from death was rather contrived, not to say unlikely.  The attempts at introducing individualised personality through the device of talking about their tastes in pop music I didn’t think it really worked and served to date the setting and age the characters.  It is difficult to argue my case against a writer who is obviously so successful with so many readers all over the world but I am afraid it was not for me and I wouldn’t want to read any more books in this genre by this author.

Sheila Culshaw

TOOTH AND NAIL


This novel of 1992 is, unusually, set in London, where Inspector John Rebus feels like a fish out of water. After solving a big case in Edinburgh he has been sent to help track down the Wolfman, a serial killer, and has to hit the ground running as another victim is found. There are several red herrings, but our hero finds the killer with the help of a psychological profiler. His estranged wife Rona and daughter are in London, so we have a parallel story involving them.

This is a very satisfying mystery – gory but not sickening, clever but not ridiculous – and typical of Ian Rankin’s style. The seeds are sown in this early novel of the dour, hard-working, hard-drinking workaholic that Rebus becomes in later books.

The writing, the action sequences and the slow unravelling of the killer’s identity are all excellent.

Dorothy Anderson 

Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Four Stars


The third in the Rebus series, originally published in 1992, this edition was reissued in 2011 and never having read any of the other books I believe read well as a self-contained novel.

Set in London, as opposed to Rebus' usual haunt of Edinburgh, Tooth And Nail tells the story of the murderer known as the Wolfman though the author cleverly keeps us guessing as to the actual sex of the killer right until the end. A seemingly complex and complicated character, it's interesting to read of Rebus' various relationships, both personal and professional, as a concerned father and a detective. Too slow in pace and, dare I say it, not nearly grisly enough for my personal tastes, I nevertheless found the involvement of dental pathologist, Tony Morrison, and 'police psychologist', Dr Lisa Frazer, made for fascinating reading though I would question Rebus' relationship with Lisa which I found rather unconvincing.

Tracy Terry

Personal Read: Three Stars

Group Read: Three Stars