It's been 20 years since Ian Rankin started writing about Inspector John Rebus, the lone-wolf Scottish police detective who lives by his own set of rules. Rebus has a preferred way of conducting himself: any way he wants, and too bad if his superiors don't like it. Over time this attitude has brought Rebus exactly nothing, unless you count the satisfaction he takes in settling scores, one criminal miscreant at a time. He is now a year from retirement and not exactly resting on his laurels.
"Rebus knew his place in the food chain: somewhere down among the plankton, the price for years of insubordination and reckless conduct," Rankin writes in The Naming of the Dead. This seems a fair assessment. So Rebus tends to be treated dismissively, but sooner or later those who underestimate him wind up sorry. The man is relentless once he shakes off his doldrums and gets into high gear.
Since Rankin has his Rebus-like side ("Often I'm not sure where I end and he begins," he has said), the warm-up stages of these novels are deliberately, stubbornly wayward. Rankin incorporates many minor characters and is never in a hurry to dispense with their small talk.
That's especially true in this new crime story, which has the temerity to treat the July 2005 G-8 conference in Edinburgh as the backdrop for a case involving sex offenders and a serial killer (or serial kilter, as a Scottish newspaper accidentally misprints it). Eventually it will all click, but not until Rebus and Rankin have taken their sweet time.
These dilatory tactics aren't a drawback; they are among the most likeable features of this top-flight, enduring series. The books use a deceptively casual tone to worm their way into Rebus' thoughts. Although it is de rigueur to know what music a crime-novel star likes to listen to, what a shambles his private life has become, what he eats for breakfast and drinks for dinner, Rankin gets just as much mileage out of showing how Rebus circles around and around a problem. He meanders very slyly until he's ready to pounce.
During the preliminaries the events in a Rebus book can appear even more deceptively unrelated than those in most crime stories. Consider that Rebus and his younger and fresher partner, Detective Sargeant Siobhan Clarke, happen to be investigating a relatively stale case when a brand-new bit of mayhem occurs: One of the dignitaries visiting for the G-8 falls out of a window in Edinburgh Castle during an official dinner.
Is this sheer coincidence? At the very least, it's an occasion for a Rebus wisecrack. "Could be there was bagpipe music between courses," he suggests. "Might've broken his will to live."
The officer in charge of G-8 security decides to get rid of Rebus before he becomes annoying. Rebus winds up suspended. "End of game," says the security chief. "Sayonara. Finito." With his usual respect for authority, Rebus replies: "Picked up a few words at the dinner, eh, sir?"
So Rebus and Siobhan wind up out on the fringes of G-8-inspired chaos. That turns out to be the most interesting place to be. The Naming of the Dead describes a roiling circus atmosphere that seems benign at first, attracting a tent city of protesters who include Siobhan's parents, but eventually escalates into rioting (and coincides with terrorist bombings in London). "Nice day out for all concerned," Rebus says after learning that 200,000 protestors have shown up for a demonstration. "Doesn't change the world I'm living in."