In his previous book, Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012), Rankin brought together two of his series characters –John Rebus, at that time a civilian working for the Serious Crime Review Unit, and Malcolm Fox of the Professional Ethics and Standards section of the Lothian and Borders Police. They’re together in this book (2013) too. Rebus is back on the force. But he’s had to accept a demotion to Detective Sergeant, and Siobhan Clarke, now DCI, is his boss – or at least, as Rebus says, she’s under that ‘cruel delusion’. Fox has one last Ethics and Standards assignment to complete before he too returns to the CID.
Clarke and Rebus attend the scene of a car crash in which a young woman is injured. But is the crash as easily explained as it looks? ‘Why,’ asks their boss, ‘is it that nothing with you two is ever straightforward?’ Then the father of her boyfriend is found dead. Can this really be a coincidence? In the meantime, Fox is investigating a case some twenty years old where the police at one particular station, Summerhall, may have intentionally compromised the evidence so that a murder suspect got off – and one of them was the then Detective Constable John Rebus. The officers from that station called themselves the ‘Saints of the Shadow Bible’ – a reference to their disregard for proper procedures as outlined in the real ‘bible’ – the Scots Criminal Law. They believed in getting results – by any method: ‘get the scumbags off the street by hook or by crook.’ They promised allegiance to each other, but will that promise hold good, now that the old more brutal forms of policing are frowned on? Rebus is the only one still in the police force; will he cooperate with Fox’s investigation?
The plot is quite complex, as the police teams involved with several different crimes – both past and current – try and work out what if any connections there are between them, with Rebus floating in the middle of them, as always on his own personal crusade. The story is absorbing, with all the working parts finally fitting together – though I was perhaps a little underwhelmed by some of the mechanics of the resolution.
An important part of the interest of the story lies in Rebus’s own response to the changing culture of policing. He has little respect for modern approaches which rely heavily on computerised data collection, and sticks to his old methods. Clarke accuses him of stirring up stuff ‘for the hell of it’, but ‘sometimes that’s how we find gold,’ he replies. Besides, ‘stirring’s the fun part’. He still believes in working the streets, and is not above cooperating with dodgy characters if he thinks they can be useful. But he knows that the old ways – planting evidence, beating up suspects – are morally unacceptable. ‘Different times. Different rules,’ someone suggests. ‘It might be what we tell ourselves,’ Rebus replies. ‘I need to know whose side you’re on,’ says his former Summerhall boss. ‘Aye, it seems to be a popular question these days,’ Rebus replies. ‘We got results, if you’d care to remember.’ ‘Oh we got results,’ he says, ‘ – but at a cost. And it seems to me we’re still paying’. The resolution of the story makes it clear that the innocent are as likely to pay that cost as the guilty. Yet in a sort of prologue and epilogue, Rebus is essentially harassing a man he believes has murdered his wife, and so far got away with it …. The morality of the situation is never black and white.
I suggested in my earlier post about Standing in Another Man’s Grave that after giving him the lead in two books, Rankin was now being too hard on Malcolm Fox, presenting him as narrow and vindictive. That isn’t the case here. Rebus’s decision to work with Fox might initially have been to find out what he knows, but both characters warm to each other to some degree. Fox even begins to understand the way Rebus’s mind works. ‘Ever since I started hanging out with you, I seem to be seeing conspiracies everywhere – conspiracies, connections and coincidences.’ But he’s prepared to act on Rebus’s insights. And Rebus may not respect the role of ‘the Complaints’, but he doesn’t join in the condemnation. Asked ‘How can you hang around with this skid mark?’ he simply doesn’t answer. When Siobhan says ‘Lucky we’ve got Malcolm to keep us on the straight and narrow’, Rebus answers ‘Best place to be, Siobhan.’ But we know when he says this that he has just enacted justice in his own way; a way Fox would never approve of. It’s not a case of saint or sinner – Rebus is both. And Fox, with his conventional approach, plays second fiddle to him.