Thursday, 15 October 2009

“The Complaints”, Ian Rankin

How fast the departed fade from view. For so many years Rankin and Rebus were synonymous, almost impossible to imagine one without the other, and even Rankin's other works, such as "Watchmen", were comprehensively outshone by the cases of his signature detective. Since Rebus exited stage left with 2007's "Exit Music" it is interesting the level to which he has faded from consciousness. While the careful reader could spot a passing side reference to him in "Doors Open", "The Complaints", Rankin's first 'proper' book in the post Rebus era, has wiped him completely from the scene.

Ably stepping into the shoes of lead protagonist, Inspector (as he says, we lose the 'detective' in PSU) Malcolm Fox is a very different character to Rebus, both in temperament and background, but it is testament to Rankin's ability, that very quickly the reader identifies with him, cares about him, and gives not a thought to the absence of Rebus. Interestingly, the initial impression of him is as a healthy almost ascetic figure, perhaps encouraged by him being a reformed alcoholic, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that Fox is overweight, struggling to sit comfortably in Breck's Mazda RX-8, and unfit, being tested by running up stairs in Edinburgh's Waverly station. Strangely this comes as a surprise, and it significantly complicated building up a picture of Fox in my mind.

One area where Rankin's writing has sometimes not quite sat write is when he tries to immerse himself in 'cyberspace'. Writing about online computer games it doesn't seem to fit properly with him. It didn't come across convincingly in "The Falls" and somehow, even although there's more veracity and it's more plausible, it doesn't quite sit right with "Quidnunc" in "The Complaints". I appreciate there may well be copyright issues, and given that Breck, the player of "Quidnunc", is introduced as a suspected user of child pornography one can accept that the makers of "World of Warcraft" or similar may have had reservations, but somehow I can't help feeling that Rankin could have written around this problem in a slightly more effective way.

If the novel does have a real fault, it is that the ending somehow feels too pat. There is an absence of loose ends, which some might see as a good thing in terms of textbook crime writing, but it lacks the ambiguity that keeps a book in your mind long after the final page is read, and almost feels like an "and they all lived happily ever after", which I don't think is what people are looking for from Ian Rankin.

This isn't a significant criticism really, more a mild disappointment. Nothing can detract from Rankin's sheer ability to quickly weave a plot, populate it with intriguing characters, and immerse the reader in time and space. Edinburgh in February 2009 feels right, in just the same way the cops and criminals both appear real; with this in mind Rankin can be forgiven for maybe only getting the narrative execution 90 per cent right.

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