Monday, February 6, 2012

Ian Rankin "The Complaints"

Having read Exit Music, been disappointed by Doors Open and headed off to reread the Rebus series in order I'd been quite happy to let The Complaints slip past on the basis that I'd wait and see whether the new character had legs, a policy that lasted roughly as long as it took to hear a Rankin segment on Radio National, decide the new character had promise and bring myself into contact with a hard copy of the story.

The retail copy I found myself dragging home was, predictably, The Impossible Dead rather than The Complaints, which in turn produced the do we read these things in order quandary and scrutiny of the shelves down at the Library that produced the volume pictured above.

It was, I thought, best to work in sequence, particularly since I'd heard a bit of background about the character and Rankin's desire to create a completely Rebus-free zone around him.

Well, maybe not quite Rebus free. There could, at some point in the indeterminate future, be an opportunity to bring the two together because Malcolm Fox, working for the Professional Standards Unit at the Lothian and Borders Police, could well end up investigating a matter that has had Rebus involvement.

Professional Standards were, after all, frequently called in to examine aspects of Rebus' career.

As far as the new character was concerned, the aim was to create a non- or anti-Rebus, which Rankin seems to have done by literally listing all the attributes we've come to associate with John Rebus and making Fox the almost diametrical opposite.

Sure, both are divorced, but where Rebus repeatedly sticks his toe in the water Fox isn't up for emotional involvement. There are no children, he's shunted his elderly father off to an expensive retirement home and he's been keeping his sister at arms length due to a combination of her binge drinking and her taking up with an abusive Englishman. His Dad's not that keen on her partner, either, Fox wants Vince Faulkner charged, but sister Judith won't press charges.

Some of that distance comes as a result of Fox's status as a recovering alcoholic, though he's still inclined to visit the bars frequented by his colleagues, drinking Virgin rather than Bloody Marys but not far enough removed from his demons to escape fantasies about the taste of single-malt whisky and the burn of vodka in the back of the throat.

That brings us to the biggest difference between the two characters. While Rebus was quite happy to go off on his own, Fox is working in an environment where he and his colleagues are loathed by their peers and have to work as a team if they'e going to get anywhere.

It's the intrigue that looks to be the driving force behind what could, if the first volume's anything to go by, be a cracker of a series.

As the story starts, Fox has just completed what appears to have been a successful investigation of Glen Heaton, a popular and high-ranking officer,who has allegedly been on the take for years, bending the rules to his advantage and trading favours among a network of criminals while still seeming to maintain a n impressive success rate in his investigations.

On the surface, when the Child Exploitation and Online Protection investigators ask him to look into a possible pedophile, it seems fairly straightforward. Jamie Breck is a young officer on the way up, but his name and credit-card details have turned up in a child-pornography inquiry.

Fox sets about preliminary investigations, and we're shown how much his team's activities, which must, of course, be conducted in extreme secrecy, are disliked by their colleagues, and he's not far into the investigation when a phone call advises him that his sister's partner has been found dead.

The phone call, in an amazing coincidence comes from Jamie Breck, who happens to be stationed at Heaton's old station, where there are plenty of people who'd like to get square with Fox, who has an obvious motive for the killing though the reader's fairly sure he didn't do it.

This results in the rather tricky situation where you've got two blokes investigating each other (more or less) as circumstances seem to be conspiring to push them closer together and a tentative friendship threatens both careers.

Breck, as it turns out, isn't quite what he seems to be. Younger than Fox, upwardly mobile, with a sharp intelligence and a cynical awareness of the way things operate, the reader could see his relationship with a female officer as cover for pedophile activities, and his penchant for role playing computer games would probably register him as more than a tad sus, but as it turns out he's straight, and just as concerned as Fox to find out who's pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Before they know it, Fox and Breck are suspended, leaving them relatively free to work together to find out what's really going on and repair their lost reputations amid a fair bit of string-pulling in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, with failed property deals, abandoned building developments and investors (including major crime figures) who've lost a bundle, are looking to claw it back and will happily turn a blind eye to whatever's involved in doing so.

That situation, in itself, creates an interesting dilemma for Fox, a man who's used to working by the book, investigating carefully in collaboration with a team to build up a case that will then be passed on for review. In these circumstances he's forced to throw away the rule book, become proactive participant rather than a detached observer and cut a few corners.

All in all, after the relative disappointment of Doors Open, we've got a character who holds the attention, may be more subdued and controlled than the old Rebus (who's apparently retired and doing a bit of digging over old cold cases so he's not totally done for) but finds himself amidst connections, apparent coincidences and conflict of interest complications. He's a believable character, doing a nasty job that he takes seriously and wants to do well. It's a character, and a situation, that has definite potential when it comes to Rankin's preferred subject matter, the moral dimension and ethical issues involved with police work and the interactions between the police and the wider community.

Actually, the only thing that's keeping me from starting on The Impossible Dead is the knowledge that it'll be a while before I can get my hands on a sequel.

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