The Naming of the Dead
by Ian Rankin
Recommended Ages: 14+
DI (Detective Inspector) John Rebus is an aging, hard-drinking, maverick detective in the Edinburgh CID (i.e., the plainclothes police). He and his lower-ranking partner, DS (Detective Sergeant) Siobhan Clarke - her first name isn't pronounced the way you think - catch a couple of inconvenient cases just as the July 2005 G8 conference, and the massive demonstrations surrounding it, are about to make their part of Scotland a mad place to be. Things get even madder on July 7, 2005 - the date that made "7/7" mean to the U.K. something like what "9/11" means to the U.S. In the midst of that, nobody wants a couple of insubordinate, boundary-crossing detectives poking into an MP's (member of parliament) plunge from a castle rampart - suicide? accident? murder? - or even chasing a serial killer whose trophies are found just up the road from the conference.
There are some odd things about that serial killer evidence, though that probably goes without saying. For one thing, the victims - three, so far - are all convicts recently let out on parole, chronic offenders with a record of rape or sexual assault. These are big, bad men: not exactly your typical, high-risk victim; but because they had victims of their own, no one has worked very hard to catch their killers, or rather killer, until now. A connection between the three men and a pro-victim website seems too obvious, too on-the-nose. A psychology professor at the local university points out the key may be anomalies in the evidence concerning one of the crimes. A computer nerd (who happens to be Siobhan's ex-boyfriend), a journalist (who collaborated on a book with John's criminal nemesis), and Big Ger Cafferty, the selfsame underworld kingpin John has spent most of his career chasing, all make themselves suspiciously helpful to the crime-solving pair, while a Special Branch operative, a city councilman, and their own chief constable put up every imaginable roadblock to their investigation, including (in the chief constable's case) suspending them from duty. Also, by the way, Siobhan's parents come to town, her mum ends up in the hospital, the whole southeast of Scotland gets snarled up in a series of demonstrations, riots, and traffic jams, and London gets bombed; so yes, there are a lot of distractions. But in spite of all these things, they keep plugging away at their puzzles.
What makes my nose twitch to the scent of something hardboiled is how, while the mystery slowly comes into focus, problems arise in the hero detectives' lives that aren't as easily cleared up. No amount of persistence will make them go away. Chuck in a dash of disillusionment with the state of the world, a specter of mortality with a nice side of nihilistic futility, some heart-tugging struggles with loneliness and (ahem) alcohol, and some of those breathtaking moments when the sleuth is forced to consider whether some of the bodies wouldn't have dropped if it hadn't been for him or her, the occasional surprise where the hero is scrobbled by villains and held prisoner overnight, and the sense that the toughest crimes are best solved by a detective who follows his own ideas about how things are done, rather than sanctioned police procedure... Yes, indeed, the Dashiell does not fall far from the Hammett.
This is the 16th of (so far) 21 "John Rebus" mystery-thrillers by Scottish author Ian Rankin, and though it is not the first of the series I have read (that honor belongs to No. 8, Black & Blue), it is the first I have reviewed. Since I've reviewed every book I have read since at least 2003 and perhaps a bit farther back, that tells you about how long it's been since I've dipped a toe in the waters of Rankin's popular series; Black & Blue's 1997 release date provides the yonder boundary of a relatively narrow time window. One of the things that may have deterred me from going back to Rebus is my recollection of Black & Blue being so full of regional dialect and slang terms, such as "paraffin budgie" (meaning, I believe, "helicopter"), that I found it heavy going. I was surprised to find no such difficulty in reading The Naming of the Dead - no budgies, paraffin or otherwise. This suggests either that my recollection was off, or that my reading since sometime between ages 25 and 31 has vastly improved my language comprehension, or that the U.S. editions of Rankin's more recent books are being more heavily edited (if "translated" is too strong a word) to give American readers more of a fighting chance. Assuming the prize lies behind Door No. 3, please remind me not to complain next time I see a publisher's note to American readers, advising them the book has been expurgated of idioms you'd have to be Scottish (or English, Irish, etc.) to understand. If English-to-English translation has become a thing, there may be a good reason.
John Rebus has been portrayed by actors John Hannah (2001-2004) and Ken Stott (2006-2007) in a series of films for British television. He is also, as I mentioned, the star of 21 novels, plus a volume or two of short stories. Their titles include Knots and Crosses, The Black Book, Set in Darkness, Fleshmarket Close, Exit Music, and Rather Be the Devil. Rankin's career goes back to the 1980s, and also includes two "Malcolm Fox" novels and seven other novels, including three originally published under the pseudonym Jack Harvey.