For various reasons I’ve still had little opportunity to catch up on television, film or DVD fare suitable for review here, but I have been reading a number of books that are undeniably worthy of brief mention on Taking The Short View…
Tooth and Nail by Ian Rankin
I learned recently that around a third of all crime genre book sales in the UK are of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series which is now twenty-strong with the recent publication of the latest instalment Even Dogs in the Wild. However, despite being an avid reader of crime fiction, I have to confess that much to my chagrin I’d never actually read any of the series – until this month, when a special 99p Kindle offer gave me the opportunity to sample an early Rebus story with minimal financial risk.
Tooth and Nail was written in 1992 and was Rankin’s third book to star Rebus; arguably it’s the first real police procedural since the author had rather different psychological horror intentions with the first stories and was rather surprised to find that he had ended up writing a crime novel. It’s a somewhat atypical novel in that it’s barely set in Rankin’s native Scotland at all, but rather dispatches Rebus to London to help pursue a serial killer known as the Wolfman. Rebus hates the capital on sight, and the feeling is entirely mutual with most people that Rebus encounters on the streets of London similarly antagonistic toward him in turn. It’s the culture clash that feels more central to the novel than the Wolfman investigation, and Rebus also has a number of personal and family distractions to take care of as well. The whodunit aspect is a nice puzzle that keeps the whole novel fundamentally sound, even if it does seem to borrow from similar tales of the time such as Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. It even comes to a rather jarring over-the-top action climax to the story straight out of a Hollywood movie.
Despite the age of the novel, there’s nothing in it – save the absence of now-ubiquitous mobile phones – that really dates it. However, you can tell it’s a relatively early work by the author: while perfectly well written it’s also rather unspectacular, with Rankin still busy finding his voice. The series (and author) wouldn’t really fully find its feet and break out to become a mainstream success until the publication of Black and Blue in 1997. Despite that, the one thing that does stand out in Tooth and Nail is the character of Rebus himself, who while massively flawed (in a way that’s almost a stereotype today thanks to Rankin’s influence on the genre) is also fundamentally believable and three dimensional so that you still root for him even when he’s making painful mistakes in how he handles his problems. Overall it is a good introduction to the world of Rebus that makes me think I’ll be adding to Rankin’s yearly author revenues on a regular basis in future.
The Bat by Jo Nesbø
The Bat has a number of parallels to Tooth and Nail in that it too is an early outing in a series of procedurals starring what would eventually become a popular character. In this case the main protagonist is Norwegian police detective Harry Hole (the surname pronounced closer to ‘Holy’ than ‘Hole’), and this is his début in Jo Nesbø’s first novel written in 1997 although it wasn’t finally translated into English until 2012 long after the rest of the series had made Harry a big hit in the UK and US.
Just as Rebus is forever identified with Scotland, Hole’s natural habitat is Oslo – but not in this story. Instead he’s sent to the other side of the world to work with the Australian police after the killing of a Norwegian tourist in Sydney. What begins as a formality soon becomes much more personal, with Harry suspecting that the killing might be part of a wider range of crimes – and close to home than anyone suspects.
Unlike Rebus – whose antipathy toward London is the mainstay of the novel – Harry quickly becomes rather enamoured with Australia and its unique mix of cultures. The novel evokes the Down Under setting very nicely, which is what had most attracted me to reading this novel in the first place as I spent some time in Sydney at around the same time that the book was set. It finds amusement in the Aussie lifestyle but without being patronising or uncritical. The story is sound and the investigation feels authentic, and there’s no issue with the book feeling dated despite being more than 20 years old at this point.
At this early stage of his writing career, Nesbø does have a stylistic quirk wherein he relies on his characters suddenly breaking out into lengthy spoken reveries in which they detail their past lives, loves and careers to people that they have only just met. In the middle of some quite tense moments, everything will suddenly stop while one character expands at lengths anecdotes about local history, beliefs and creation myths. It’s a hard thing to get right and make it sound natural at the best of times, and Nesbø doesn’t succeed here: using the technique once or twice might have worked, but there’s a definite over-reliance on it here. Even when the background story is genuinely interesting and of merit, bringing added depth to the plot and characters that otherwise wouldn’t have been present, it still gets in the way of the central narrative. There’s also an extended section in which one character suffers a breakdown, which is one of the more realistic and uncomfortable depictions I”ve come across of an alcoholic coming wildly off the wagon and destroying his life in the process.
As with my first sampling of Rebus, I think this early taster has certainly succeeded in making me want to read more about Harry Hole in the future. I do wonder whether his non-Australian outings will have the same appeal to me, but I’m certainly keen and eager to find out.
Ghost in the Machine by Ed James
While both Ian Rankin and Jo Nesbø are big names in the world of crime fiction, that can’t be said to be the case for Ed James who is the author of a series of police procedurals set in Edinburgh and starring junior officer DC Scott Cullen. Once again, a special 99p Kindle deal was responsible for my deciding to give the series a test drive, and I’m very glad that I did.
Although set firmly on Rebus’ home patch, the series has a very different feel to Rankin’s work. For one thing it’s much more modern – not only are mobile phones a fixture, but social networking sites also play a central role in the story of a young professional woman who goes missing while on a first date. Cullen himself feels like a very normal late-twentysomething still in the early stages of his career, frustrated by dismissive superiors and workshy peers in the open-plan office as he spends most of his time on routine doorstep enquiries and hunting down possible witnesses on the phone while dealing with the legal paperwork involved in getting access to phone logs, bank statements and laptop computers.
While nothing like the hard-drinking, surly, divorced maverick cops of Rebus’ and Hole’s ilk, Cullen is far from perfect and is inclined to get drunk at parties and have unfortunate one-night stands, and fall out massively with his commanding officer who dumps a dozen different administrative tasks on Cullen without sufficient time or resources to handle them all but who then berates Cullen for not completing them. In short, it’ll be a very familiar workplace environment to anyone who has ever worked in an office. Throughout this, James manages to weave in a believable mystery, and the resolution shows that all that routine paperwork can actually deliver results at the end of the day when they’re least expected.
I’m certainly more interested in reading the next instalment of Scott Cullen’s story than I am Rebus or Hole despite their much greater profiles in crime fiction. Fortunately James has written seven Cullen tales so far, and also has parallel series featuring London-based DI Simon Fenchurch and also PC Craig Hunter of Edinburgh’s Local Policing Unit.
Rebus and Hole books are available from all good book stores as well as online retailers and in ebook formats. The Scott Cullen series is ebook-only.