Back to Rebus

Oregon TreesI’d like to talk more about Ian Rankin’s universe, and Inspector John Rebus.  I’m likely to review one (or several) of his books more specifically, but as the series has gotten me through a tough couple of months, I thought I’d encourage people to pick up a Rebus book.  Here’s a little background.

John Rebus works for the Lothian and Borders police force and is based in Edinburgh, Scotland.  His rank, for the most part, is Detective Inspector (DI), although the books flash back to his time as a Detective Constable (DC) and Detective Sergeant (DS).  When Rebus “un-retires” in the more recent books, he is classified back as a DS, and though he isn’t otherwise demoted throughout the books, he is frequently exiled or given junk assignments as penance for coloring outside the lines.

Rebus drinks a lot or a ton, depending on the cases he is investigating and the state of his personal life (which is either circling the drain or clogging it).  Actually, I’m exagerrating.  He has the occasional and seemingly enjoyable fling, and has a less than completely broken relationship with his daughter, Sammy.

As I read this back, Rebus’ life seems pretty depressing but the books do not have a depressing tone.  Sure, they deal with the underbelly of Edinburgh (and at times, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Firth and all points north).  I have never read books that involve more tenements and dive bars.  Which raises a point about vernacular — does tenement mean the same thing in Scotland as it does here?  To me, a tenement is a dirty, unsafe, crowded, dilapidated apartment complex that few would choose to enter and none would opt to inhabit.  Rankin however uses tenement to describe almost every living space that isn’t a stand-alone house.  Rebus’ own complex (in the posh Marchmont area) is frequently described as a tenement.  So, tangent over but keep in mind some “lost in translation” cultural elements exist in the books.

Rankin does an excellent job of weaving Scotland’s history into the stories, and allows it to smack against modern Scotland (replete with building explosions, the ever-present “independence” issues, and environmental concerns).  After reading even a few of the books, you’ll likely be able to describe the layout Ox bar (Rebus’ favorite hangout) and  pick out St. Leonard’s (Rebus’ station)  on a map.  You’ll be able to visualize a stroll through the Meadows, New Town and Old Town areas of Edinburgh.  In short, Rankin richly describes Rebus’ world and plops us squarely in it.

Aside from encouraging Scotland tourism (which, oddly, these somewhat dark crime novels really do), the Rebus books offer a level of comfort and encouragement.  No, they aren’t your typical “cozy mysteries”.  Though they are often set in smaller towns or the countryside of Scotland, they don’t have that rector catches the town gossip poisoning her neighbors at the church bake sale quality. They are comfortable in the predictability of Rebus’ unpredictability.  After a time, you’ll learn that Rebus zigs when others zag, he drinks when he is upset, happy, content, he looks for connections when others see none, he relentlessly pursues the truth.  His world is also sprinkled with familiar characters, including:

  • DS Siobhan Clarke (pronounced shiv-AWN) – Rebus’ younger colleague and protege with whom he has no romantic relationship
  • Samantha (Sammy) Rebus – Rebus’ daughter
  • Patience Aitken – a doctor and Rebus’ on-again, off-again lover
  • Gill Templer – Rebus’ ex-flame and eventual boss
  • Jack Morton – Rebus’ former partner and colleague who helps Rebus stop drinking and smoking (for a time)
  • Big Ger Cafferty – Edinburgh crime boss and Rebus’ nemesis

There is a level of comfort in continuing story lines and knowing that Rebus is likely to veer off task at some point.  And, as evidenced by my own scatological order in reading the Rebus books, it is not critical that you start with the first and proceed to the last.  You’ll get enough background in each book to understand the players.

As for the encouragement part, well, Rebus is tenacious.  He may drink himself silly but hangover and all, he will proceed the following day.  He is flawed and far from perfect, but he has a drive and a code, often sacrificing in order to adhere to them.

So here’s to ya, Rebus and carry on.  Happy reading.

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