Skip navigation

Since I last wrote about Rebus, seven weeks ago, I’ve jumped another six novels in the series. This is a good time, before we come to Rebus’ retirement in another five books, to chart how the series has changed and to acclaim some impressive developments.

The six new books are:

§ Let it Bleed (1995)

§ Black & Blue (1997)

§ The Hanging Garden (1998)

§ Dead Souls (1999)

§ Set in Darkness (2000)

§ The Falls (2001)

Within these six books there are three things that stood out for me.

The first is Black & Blue. This is the best book in the series (so far), and represents a peak in Rankin’s powers as plotter, writer and social commentator.

The plot is twisted: Rebus is sticking his nose into the investigation of a serial killer that the media have dubbed Johnny Bible, a copycat follower of historical Scottish serial killer Bible John. At the same time, Rebus has a case of his own  involving a Glasgow mob boss and his links to the dirty glamour and cheap money of Scotland’s North Sea oil boom. Because Rebus doesn’t do anything the easy way, he’s following up both cases whilst also the focus of an internal inquiry into a case where Rebus is accused of helping plant fake evidence.

Black & Blue is a masterpiece of story, intricately arranged and its many threads kept vital at every step; each investigation promises to be the centrepiece of the book, and each is an equally worthy story.

It’s a testament to Rankin’s dexterity with the pen that all the sub-plots proceed equally: none is sacrificed to another. You feel Rebus’ sense of bewilderment as complications multiply, cheer his impatient grinding persistence and share his disappointment in an unjust resolution.

The second stand out is the development of consequences for Rebus’ actions, and Rebus’ dawning appreciation of these consequences.

For the first time Rebus encounters situations where his official status and dogged investigation uncovers only pain, grief and bleak truths that don’t advance the ends of public or private justice.

In the earlier books, Rebus is often described (by his then boss) DCS Watson as a crusading Old Testament prophet, determined to ensure that people obey his moral vision.

As Rebus matures in the books after Hanging Gardens he becomes an Old Testament prophet who sees how his visions are affecting his people. He faces up to his ghosts and acquires a grudging mindfulness of others that diminishes the self-indulgent egocentricity of the first books.

The final change is the revolution in secondary characters. In the initial book, Rebus confines his methods to solo shoe leather and persistence.

As the series develops he reluctantly lets his undesired protégé, DC Brian Holmes, into his world because as a newly promoted Detective Inspector, Rebus doesn’t needs to do all the less desirable spade work himself, and having other people do that helps him pursue his obsessions with further dedication.

Mid-way through this series DC Siobhan Clarke displaces DC Holmes (who resigns from the police force in Black & Blue and leaves Rebus’ world altogether as a result) as the main foil to our grumpy protagonist.

The universe expands, and in the latest novels, from Let it Bleed onwards, a cast of characters such as DI Hogan, DI Pryde, DI Linford, and DI Claverhouse start taking up positions in Rebus’ world, as opponents, enemies, colleagues and allies.

At the end of Set in Darkness, these secondary characters have started to dominate. For the first time Rebus’ relationships with other people he works with become part of the story and critical to his own survival as a police officer.

This impetus comes to a peak in The Falls, where Siobhan Clarke becomes a primary character in her own right for the first time, free (in part) of the shadow of Rebus. Given her own story, conflicts, relationships, desires and direction, including the perturbing question of whether being associated with Rebus is good for her either personally and professionally. Her inner life is created for the first time in the way that we have been previously privy to Rebus’ inner monologue.

The first seven books settled on a concept and a style. Rankin found the essential contours of Rebus and put in decaying post- Thatcher urban Scotland as the background and foreground of Rebus’ life. He is a man forged by the decline of industrial Scotland as much as Scotland is forged by a national character that produces men like Rebus.

The major theme of these six books is firstly the development of a mature vision: a vision of the world as an ambiguous and inconclusive place by Rankin in his writing and plotting and how this plays out in the world view and actions of his protagonist John Rebus and secondly the development of the depth of other characters, which Rankin as much as Rebus are seeing as individuals in their own right, instead of as secondary support to Rebus’ narrow vision of the world as personal justice.