Fear and Lothian

The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin, Orion £18.99

Rankin’s latest gives a second outing to Inspector Rebus’s successor — new detective, Inspector Malcolm Fox

Sunday Times, 23 October 2011

It is four years since Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus — working-class,
hard-drinking, contemptuous of authority — became an improbable candidate for
retirement, depriving Lothian and Borders police of one of its most colourful
characters. Rankin’s latest novel, The Impossible Dead, is a second outing for
his new detective, Inspector Malcolm Fox, against the familiar background of
Edinburgh and its environs.

Fox is a generation younger than Rebus and he’s given up the booze. If
there’s any danger of his seeming too nice, Rankin has cleverly given him a job
that creates plenty of conflict; Fox works for Internal Affairs, universally
known as the Complaints, and his job is investigating other cops. It’s a task
that ensures a frosty welcome whenever Fox arrives at a police station with his
sidekicks Tony Kaye and Joe Naysmith. The ­Complaints, Rankin’s first novel
with Fox as the main character, was at pains to explain what the team does;
with that out of the way, Rankin is able to give his characters free rein, using
an investigation into a corrupt detective constable in Fife as the starting
point.

Fox has been asked to find out whether other officers covered up for the
detective, Paul Carter, who has been found guilty of misconduct after demanding
sexual favours from women he arrested. A curious feature of the case is that
Carter was shopped by his own uncle, a retired police officer. Fox visits the
uncle in his out-of-the-way cottage and finds him surrounded by old newspapers
and documents dating back to 1985. Fox instinctively likes Alan Carter, an
old-fashioned copper with a ruddy face and bushy sideburns, and when the man is
murdered a few days later his nephew is the obvious suspect.

It isn’t Fox’s case, strictly speaking, but the murder weapon turns out
to be a gun that had been seized by the police years ago and supposedly
destroyed. Fox starts asking questions about the events Alan Carter was
researching at the time of his murder, and stumbles on the mysterious death of
a firebrand Scottish nationalist lawyer more than 25 years earlier.

Rankin has always been interested in Scottish nationalism, and the plot
reaches back to a decade when some groups turned to terrorist tactics. His
portrait of these young idealists and their descent into violence is finely drawn,
and his point that yesterday’s terrorists become today’s respected public
figures is well made. Fox is a less rumbustious but more likeable character
than Rebus, doggedly pursuing each clue as it takes him into the highest
echelons of Scotland’s devolved government.

If Rankin’s fiction has a flaw, it’s a tendency towards baroque plots
and improbable conspiracies. Here, it seems far-fetched that so many important
people have successfully concealed secret pasts for a quarter of a century. But
Fox remains a worthy successor to Rebus, retaining his outsider status and
incorruptibility but

operating in a much more modern context.

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