It's become a familiar story in the press; lone gunman enters a school and kills as many students as possible before turning the weapon on himself. (Having never heard of a woman carrying out an act of this type the male pronoun is more than just a convenience.) But when it happens on the grounds of an exclusive private school in Scotland and the lone gunman happens to be a former member of the Special Armed Services (SAS), the elite British Commando Corps and a wounded survivor is a local Member of the Scottish Parliament's (MSP) son, questions are asked as to motive and means.
In Ian Rankin's novel A Question Of Blood, Lee Herdman, ex of Her Majesty's SAS, walks into Port Edgar Academy on a beautiful sunny afternoon at break time, enters the student's common room and fires four shots. The first two kill two boys, the third wounds another, and he lodges the fourth in his own brain. "What a blessing," everyone said, that most of the students were out on the grounds, or who knows how many he would have killed before taking his own life.
Of course that's small compensation to the parents of the dead boys, or the police who are forced to conduct the investigation in an effort to figure out why Herdman did what he did. They're not helped any by the survivor's father attempts to make a political name, and exact a measure of vengeance on the police, by demanding "Something Be Done About Violence". (The distinguished gentleman had been caught in the company of a "working girl" during a police sweep of a neighbourhood – and although able to worm and squirm his way out of it all by claiming he was "researching," he still believed the police deliberately targeted him and leaked his presence to some of the louder tabloids)
Under normal circumstances Detective Inspector (DI) John Rebus wouldn't have had anything to do with the investigation as it occurred in another station's territory. But the officer in charge, a former colleague, remembers that Rebus had once almost been accepted into the SAS. That's enough to ensure Rebus be considered someone with insight into the way the brain of a discharged trained killer works and to get him attached to the investigation in an "unofficial capacity" as an advisor in the hunt for a motive.
Unofficial capacity because, as seems to be usual for DI John Rebus, he's skirted a wee bit too close to the edge of not playing by the rules and has been suspended from the force. This time might be a little more serious, as he was the last person seen in the company of a man who was found bound and gagged, or at least his charred remains were found, in his apartment after a house fire.
Unfortunately Rebus and the remains had a history, which had included a complaint of harassment against Rebus (dropped) and the corpse giving Rebus's junior officer, Detective Sergeant (DS) Siobhan (pronounced Shi-v-on) Clarke a black eye. The fact that Rebus shows up for work two days after the fire with his hands heavily bandaged from burns is just an extra-added bonus to toss onto the pile of evidence assembled against him.
All in all it's just another day at the office in the world that Ian Rankin has created for his character DI John Rebus to muddle through as best he can. A Question Of Blood, written in 2003, has John middle-aged and alone. Over the course of 13 previous books he has run two relationships into the ground, arrested his own brother on drug charges, alienated his daughter, come perilously close to being thrown off the force, and drunk himself to sleep every night in his arm chair listening to classic Rock and Roll of the late 1960's.
It's no coincidence that some Rebus novels share titles with Rolling Stones album titles; Let It Bleed and Beggar's Banquette, as Rebus is addicted to that period of music. A sign of refusing to let go of his youth and age gracefully, or perhaps his way of underlining his status as the most non-conformist of the non-conformist? However you want to take it, his enthusiasm for the music of that era it appears to be his only interest that isn't work.
Even here though his interest borders on the obsessive – a trait that has been pointed to as a detriment in his character by any who have attempted to place themselves between him and an investigations. An unwillingness to "Just let it go John" has landed him in the soup more times than nought, and inevitably ticked off many a puffed up government appointee in a uniform who never walked a beat.
On the other hand it has also always produced results in the past when it looked like wells were dry. With the cynicism typical of the breed, the political types will acknowledge his achievements while awaiting their next opportunity crucify him. But like the armed forces needs men like Lee Herdman to carry out their dirty work the brass need cops like Rebus. So although they'll make his life as miserable as possible, they'll also hold onto him until he becomes too much of a liability that he'll harm their chances of promotion.
As in the earlier books, the Edinburgh that is Rebus' beat is not the one you'll hear the local tourist board exclaiming over enthusiastically. Council flats (subsidised housing), snitches, prostitutes, drugs, and violence don't sell quite as well as history and a Fringe Theatre Festival. But they are part of that world which most of us never see, one that both criminal and police find themselves equally at home in.
Ian Rankin's ability to bring those streets and its denizens to life, and to allow the line between the good guys and the bad guys to blur, if not vanish on occasion, gives his novels the continual underlying tension that would be the part of life on any modern police force. Long gone are the days, if they ever really existed, of gentleman crooks and unarmed Bobbies. While officers like Rebus still don't carry weapons as a part of their uniform and those that do have to radio in for permission to draw their weapons before leaving their car, as drugs flood the historic streets, guns for villains have become as readily available as taxis.
While DI Rebus and DS Clarke are both on the sides of the angels, more and more they are finding themselves having to make decisions that make it harder to look in a mirror in the morning. Perhaps that is the real distinction between them and those they arrest; they are bothered by their consciences. Even Rebus' excuses to himself for his behaviour are beginning to sound hollow in his own ears and yet he can't seem to find an alternative way to get the job done.
Whether dealing with one of his snitches or exchanging barbs with the investigators the armed forces has sent to assist the with the delving into the reasons behind one of their former employee's actions Rebus is equally acerbic. Its just not in his nature to be very trusting of anyone anymore, and there is something about the about the latter pair that raises his hackles
All their attempts to build a stone wall around the case does is make Rebus push all the harder to find out what they are trying so hard to conceal. Like a terrier after a rat he won't give up until he's got his prey in his grips, and he'll push to accomplish this even if means bringing the wall down on top of him.
A Question Of Blood is a tautly written, neatly woven, story that manages to not only follow two plot lines with ease, but also continues to delve deeper into the heart and soul of one of the most complex detective fiction characters ever created. What amazes me about the Rebus books is not just Rankin's ability to come up with original plots each time out, but that here in the fourteenth book his main character is still a fascinating enigma who remains as much a mystery as the plots he unravels.
Part of the joy in reading these books is the way each of them peels back another layer of the onion-like character of John Rebus and we see deeper into his soul. He is a complex man in a world where black and white have long since ceased to exist. We may always be on the outside looking in on John Rebus and his world, but it is one of the best views in contemporary fiction.
Long may DI John Rebus continue to patrol the streets of Edinburgh and continue to do what he does best: be a police officer who cares too much.