Have you ever noticed that no matter how liberal you think you are, or radical you want to be, when you read a really good mystery story featuring police officers as the central characters you quickly sympathise with them and their lot? Then again, the characters who become our favourites do so because they are cops almost in spite of the "cop" mentality.
They don't play by the rules, have little or no use for authority, and can usually be counted on to have some interesting character flaw. Of course, also working in their favour is the fact that they generally ply their trade in some far-off exotic locale like Edinburgh, Scotland.
The streets of this august city are home to Detective Inspector (DI) John Rebus, Criminal Investigation Division (CID). Scottish mystery writer Ian Rankin has put him in these particular mean streets for 16 novels, starting back in 1982 with Knots & Crosses. I haven't read all the previous novels, but on every occasion that I've checked, Rebus has been just as intriguing as he was the first time.
The Naming Of The Dead, newly published by Orion Books, is once again set in Edinburgh and its surroundings, and Rebus is up to his neck in it as usual. But this time the stakes are raised, just ever so slightly, by the presence of a few hundred thousand demonstrators who have come to honour Bob Geldof's request to help eradicate poverty; the leaders of the G8 countries; and the variety of special police, hangers-on, and movers and shakers who are as much the camp-followers of these conferences as the protesters.
The week of July 5-9, 2005 promises to be as tiresome as the annual August Theatre and Fringe festival combined, as far as John Rebus is concerned, and he is thankful that his reputation for lacking tact and diplomacy is keeping him off centre-stage. It's therefore unfortunate that a routine murder investigation that looked like it had gone cold all of a sudden tossed up a clue that thrust him right in the thick of things.
Just a short helicopter's flight from Gleneagles, where all the G8 affiliates will be converging, a piece of cloth from the victim's clothing has turned up, along with what looks like samples of other victims' clothing. Instead of one victim, Rebus and Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke are now looking at the handiwork of a potential serial killer.
Not even police are allowed to be that close to Gleneagles right about now without someone coming sniffing around. The dog this time is a Special Branch operative up from London to coordinate security for the Conference and he immediately causes Rebus' hackles to rise. After a little barking and growling they each return to their own territory.
Rebus still might have been all right if he hadn't developed an unhealthy interest in why a Member of Parliament on hand for the G8 Conference decided to dive off the parapet of Edinburgh Castle during a meeting with a variety of those aforementioned movers and shakers. As it happens, the same Special Branch officer who had warned him away from Gleneagles has turned up again.
As Rebus and Clarke wade their way through the usual quagmire of the Edinburgh underworld, turning up some old friends and new enemies, the city is seething around them with protests and demonstrations. When Siobhan's mother — her parents came for the march — is clubbed and injured seriously during one of the demonstrations, Siobhan becomes obsessed with finding the culprit.
As the week marches on, both Rebus and Clarke find themselves confronting pieces of their characters they hadn't the nerve to look at previously. For Rebus it had started with the burial of his younger brother and continues with reminders of his impending retirement. When his career is over there is nothing and nobody awaiting him to welcome him back from the wars.
For Siobhan, who has never really questioned her career choices, the possibility that her mother has been brutally clubbed by a fellow officer leaves her desperate to exact punishment and justice. But is she desperate enough to seal a deal with the devil in the shape of Rebus' old enemy Cafferty, an underground kingpin?
The world sometimes has a way of throwing all of our doubts and fears back in our face. For a police officer who sees lawbreakers out on the street in two weeks, with apathy all around and no difference being made, the question of why they do what they do can eat away at resolve, or lead to a consideration of alternatives to standard procedure. It's not the temptation of money or material goods that will be a good officer's downfall, but the need to see justice carried out.
Thursday, July 7, 2005 – the devastation of London by terrorist bombs would be enough to shake anyone's foundations. For two troubled Scottish police officers it could easily push them over the edge into desperation or despair. There is never an easy answer to the question "Do I make a difference?" And When faced with such mass destruction and wanton hatred it becomes harder to see.
Ian Rankin is not an ordinary mystery writer, so The Naming Of The Dead is not your usual mystery. Certainly it has the same elements as other detective novels – after all, there is a case to be solved, clues to be collected, suspects to be interviewed, and victims to be comforted. But underneath it all runs the lives of the police officers who work and live in a world few of us can hope to comprehend.
It's a fine line an author walks when he allows his characters to expose themselves, warts and all, to his readers. Push one way too hard and he risks self-indulgence, the other way cliché. But Ian Rankin is a tightrope walker of the highest quality, and he never once falters. At the end of the novel the mystery of the crime may be solved, but our protagonists are still left with questions and looking for answers.
Justice is not always a simple case of who is guilty and who is innocent. There are shadings of grey in between the black and white of a conviction or arrest; that's the world John Rebus calls home. It's not comfortable, and sometimes not pretty, but it's real. You can't get any better then that.