In AN Wilson’s biography of Iris Murdoch, John Bayley is quoted as saying “Iris usually wrote a good one and then a dud”. Such a rhythm of advance and retreat is common in literary careers; what is startling about Ian Rankin is that he seems to have cheated the graph. There have been 14 novels, a novella and short stories about John Rebus, his Edinburgh cop, and yet he remains a rare example of a bestselling author whose increasing financial advances are matched by artistic ones.
A Question of Blood created newspaper fuss with only a few chapters written when Rankin revealed at last year’s Edinburgh book festival that it began with a shooting at a Scottish school. The writer was accused of ghoulishly fictionalising Dunblane, but readers of the finished novel are likely to conclude that Rankin is involved in a more subtle project.
In both nature and explanation, the book’s fictional incident at a Scottish private school – in which an ex-soldier apparently kills two students and himself – conscientiously avoids copycatting. However, as the plot also refers to two actual events, the Lockerbie bombing and the disputed downing of a military helicopter on Jura, it’s clear that part of Rankin’s scheme is to draw on Scotland’s real mysteries.
Such subtle patterning is typical of the growing structural complexity of the Rebus books as the series has developed. It’s apparent, too, in the title’s pun. A case that turns on blood-spattered diagrams also brings Rebus up against his own red stuff. One of the students killed in the school tragedy is his cousin’s kid. Because of this – and the fact that the college gunman is, like Rebus, ex-army – the detective is forced to construct a psychological profile of himself: a man with a lost daughter, distant friends and a pale, loner lifestyle.
The primary challenge of any long detective series is to turn new aspects of the character towards the light with each novel. A Question of Blood achieves this because Rebus, never previously very likable, begins the book under suspicion of being a murderer himself. A crook who had been threatening Rebus’s colleague DS Siobhan Clarke has died in a fire. The detective inspector, seen with the victim earlier in the evening, is admitted to hospital with scalded hands.
This detail works as both a mystery and a metaphor – Rebus is a dangerous pair of hands – but also adds to the physical reality of the character. Rebus gets through on bandages and pain-killers, his major occupations, smoking and drinking, becoming fiendish puzzles. Viciously independent by temperament, he’s forced to rely on DS Clarke for driving, cooking and a nervous faith that he isn’t a murderer.
In Clarke’s centrality lies another story. As Rebus is clearly now approaching retirement, the Rankin industry (accounting for 10 per cent of all crime book sales in the UK) faces a difficult decision over future trading plans. Nicolas Freeling’s readers punished him at the tills for killing off Van der Valk. Henning Mankell allowed his Inspector Wallander a pension but kept him in the background of cases solved by his detective daughter.
There are strong clues in A Question of Blood that Rankin is contemplating a similar succession, with DS Siobhan Clarke taking over custody of the handcuffs. Indeed, the unresolved sexual tension between Rebus and Clarke in this novel raises the possibility that Rebus may yet become a Denis Thatcher of crime fiction, pouring whiskeys for the new premier character and chatting over the plots.
Retiring the DI would be a risk, but this 16th Rebus suggests that, while readers wouldn’t push him, Rankin could survive that jump.