The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin (Book Review) ~ BitterSweetLife

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin (Book Review)

As a kid, I was a complete sucker for detective stories. I read Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, The Hardy Boys, Jerry Todd, The Bobbsey Twins, and (I hesitate to admit), Nancy Drew.

This fascination with crime, sudden death, and intricate investigations has survived like a maimed serial killer. My more recent favorites have been Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter and P.D. James' Adam Dalgliesh, but I'm always willing to branch out. So when I heard good things about Scottish writer Ian Rankin, I was in.

Here are my impressions of Rankin's 2006 The Naming of the Dead, and his protagonist, Detective Inspector John Rebus. (Naming is the 16th installment in the Rebus series.)

Ian Rankin writes with a gritty, descriptive, and believable voice, one that aims for compelling and hard-boiled narrative, not poetry: "Cafferty was dexterous: fingers in every imaginable criminal pie" (37). His characters are ever so slightly larger than life, except in John Rebus' case, who is considerably larger, but not unpleasantly so: "Rebus paused for a moment in the afternoon sunshine and wondered why his blood was coursing. Answer: he was working. Old-fashioned, dogged police work--almost as good as vacation" (401).

Rebus is a hard-nosed, smart-ass detective who's getting older and knows it. He has a prominent chip on his shoulder, overt authority issues, and a mouth like an itchy trigger finger--prone to shoot off. But despite his hard-charging, hard-drinking, demeanor, he really does care about justice and the people around him, and wonders how to make his last years count; the rough exterior hides a vulnerable man, which is why the reader buys in and cares about Rebus. He is sympathetic despite his bulldog style and outbursts of dry Scottish wit.

Rankin moves the book along with supreme pacing and visceral storytelling. The investigation, which is framed convincingly in the history and culture of Edinburgh, Scotland (July, 2005), revolves around a series of killings that take place against the backdrop of national-level political meetings (the G8 Conference), a huge influx of foreign diplomats, and popular rallies (remember the Live8 concerts?).

The series of murders seem intended to be overshadowed by the media frenzy and general chaos--but John Rebus is unwilling to let that happen. This story behind the story motif, bolstered by references to the likes of Coldplay, U2, Tony Blair, and President Bush, add immediacy to the book, but it's ultimately the interplay of a formidable cast of characters that drive the plot.

As Rebus and several coworkers use all the leverage they can muster to push their "low-priority" case ahead, Rankin always keeps us inside someone's head. The point of view is consistently personal, direct, and emotionally charged. I found myself contrasting this approach with P.D. James, who typically uses wide angle shots to set the scene, then hovers in close for brief intimate glimpses of her protagonists. Both authors develop their preferred vantage point to perfection.

Finally, the mystery in The Naming of the Dead is very well-constructed, and all the ingredients for armchair sleuthing are in place. The solution is appropriately hidden, but has that Ah yes satisfaction...when it clicks coldly into the safety on a Colt. ;) I actually theorized the correct answer about halfway through the book, but then forgot by the time I could pick it up again. Guess I don't get too much credit for that, but Ian Rankin has earned himself (yet) another fan.

*** Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Naming of the Dead, with its dark irony, soul-searching, and brass-tacks realism. Three of three stars: Don't miss it. As far as a good mystery goes, they don't get much better. Just don't expect a light, PG-type read.

Yes, your hunch was correct: Ian Rankin's The Naming of the Dead will be joining the likes of P.D. James on the Master Book List.

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Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife