Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ian Rankin "The Impossible Dead"

It takes a special kind of cop to work effectively in Internal Affairs, the Office of Complaints and Conduct, Professional Ethics and Standards, Standards and Values or whatever label the authorities in your part of the world have tagged the internal investigators Ian Rankin calls The Complaints.

For a start, every case, regardless of how humble it may look on the surface, has the potential to reach upwards into the highest echelons of the force in question.

At the start of The Impossible Dead Edinburgh-based Inspector Malcolm Fox and his colleagues Sergeant Tony Kaye and Constable Joe Naysmith arrive in Fife to interview three police officers after suggestions Detective Paul Carter, who has been found guilty of extorting sex from women he's arrested and is awaiting sentencing, has been protected by his colleagues in the small coastal town of Kirkcaldy,

It’s the sort of allegation that’s going to be fairly inevitable in such cases, and it’s equally inevitable that the crooked cop’s colleagues are going to resent the investigation, so, predictably, Fox and his team run into the usual hostility and lack of co-operation from the local Constabulary. Par for the course (and, while we’re referencing golf, they’re not far from St Andrews).  As Fox and company arrive in Kirkcaldy, they are stonewalled by Kirkcaldy's entire detective force. The three men they have come to interview, DI Scholes, DS Haldane, and DS Michaelson, are on duty or unavailable due to illness.

In a way, you get the feeling all this becomes a bit of a game.

When the Complaints arrive, they're going to walk in expecting the antagonism from their fellow officers. Scholes, Haldane, and Michaelson are close friends of Carter’s and have more than likely covered up for him in the line of duty. When they arrive the Desk Sergeant may not be able to let them in, there may be no rooms available to work from, whatever facilities they are offered will be substandard, insecure or inconveniently located,whoever’s in charge will be away from the office attending meetings and the interviews they want to arrange will run up against all sorts of obstacles.

Faced with the predictable not quite passive resistance, Fox’s team set out to do their jobs. With Kaye and Naysmith assigned to chase up the interviews they’re supposed to be doing Fox heads off to talk to the person who reported Carter. The complainant, as it turns out was Carter’s uncle Alan, a retired police officer who now operates a security business and lives in isolated Gallowhill Cottage with his aged border collie, Jimmy Nicholl.

Fox’s team also talk to Teresa Collins, the woman who originally testified against Paul Carter, but news Carter has been released on bail causes Collins to cut her wrists. Then Alan Carter is found dead at his kitchen table, surrounded by papers relating to a cold case from 1985 with a pistol that had theoretically been destroyed by the police beside him. It looks like suicide until Fox points out a few inconvenient details.

Sure, it might be suicide, but the gun is in the wrong hand, and a dog lover would have arranged something for an aged and infirm border collie, wouldn’t he?

Given the fact that Paul Carter is out on bail, has a fairly obvious motive, made the last phone call his uncle received before he died and was seen driving in the area he becomes the obvious suspect.

The crux of the matter turns out to be the cold case Alan Carter was investigating. A lawyer named Francis Vernal was killed in a suspicious car accident, his death wasn’t properly investigated, and his widow (whose health is failing) wants some questions answered before she dies. She has persuaded an old friend to hire Alan Carter to revisit the circumstances surrounding his death.

Vernal was involved with radical groups trying to achieve independence by a violent campaign of violence that included packages of anthrax in the mail, kidnappings, murders and violent marches. Predictably, their activities attracted the authorities’ attention with undercover agents assigned the task of infiltrating the movement. His death had been treated as an accident or suicide, but he was in the habit of carrying sums of money with him and there’s none in the wreckage when his body was discovered. Fox is convinced Vernal was murdered.

Twenty-five years later many of those nationalists have reached the upper echelons of the Scottish National Party as devolution brought the SNP to power in Edinburgh.

As Fox starts digging it seems that someone wants something covered up (predictable, the radicals would doubtless have skeletons they’d prefer to keep in the closet) and with a contemporary terrorist plot in the offing MI5 is also sniffing around.

Fox sets out to discover what became of the other members of the nationalist movement and as he does he also has to deal with his father’s bouts of dementia and his increasingly strained relationship with his sister.

Fox’s father, Mitch, is in a nursing home, Fox is paying the bills, and while he feels guilty about the arrangement the alternative would probably involve Mitch living with him which wouldn’t work either.  His sister Jude is constantly accusing him of not caring about their father and has given Mitch a box of family photographs to jog his fading memory. One of them includes Fox’s uncle, who was involved in the nationalist movement and died in a motorbike accident around the same time as the Vernal crash.

That, in a nutshell is the basic plot line and the major subplot. There are, of course, others. There’s Fox’s interaction with Evelyn Mills, a member of Fife’s Complaints and the only friendly face in Kirkcaldy. She’s a married woman with whom Fox once had a one-night stand when she was slightly drunk and might be open to a rematch.

And Paul Carter, out on bail and under suspicion after his uncle’s death, drowns in the local harbour. Suicide? Murder? Another victim of someone who wants to keep the secrets hidden in the past under wraps?

As all these matters intersect the result is an absorbing read that kept me turning the pages, confirming a suspicion here, adding another strand there and throwing in the odd red herring to keep things interesting. Highly recommended, and a worthy successor to The Complaints, with the prospect, now that the retirement age for Scottish police officers has been raised to sixty-five that we might yet see John Rebus, retired but apparently sifting over the details of old, cold cases, come across Malcolm Fox, whose professional duties, as we’ve seen here, are always likely to push him in the same direction.

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