I know I am going to love a book that starts with “The girl screamed once, only once…”. Ian Rankin uses this line to great effect as he sets the scene for a brutal murder in the first chapter of this hard-boiled who-done-it, Exit Music. In classic style, we tag along with Detective Inspector John Rebus and his loyal partner, Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke, as they begin a new investigation from the beginning; the blood is still warm and the crime scene is fresh. What first appears as a mugging gone horribly bad is quickly complicated when the identity of the victim is learned. He is a Russian poet who is highly critical of his motherland and the changes occurring there. In an era when Russian reporters and dissidents seem to have a higher mortality rate than a front line soldier, the victim’s connections suddenly open the doors to international intrigue and political implications. When a second murder is discovered, the victim being a material witness in the case, the heat is turned up, and it brings all the creeps out of the woodwork.
DI Rebus practices his trade in the growing city of Edinburgh. Rankin uses the intimate knowledge of his home to create a vivid and realistic atmosphere. He shines his light into all of the dirty corners of modern life in urban Scotland; from the hand-to-mouth tenements and flophouses to the privileged circles of bankers and politicos. Greed, perversion, violence, and corruption are shown to thrive at every level, and it takes a gifted detective indeed to chart the waters.
We learn very quickly that DI Rebus is only days from retirement, and that this will be his last hurrah. So, along with a masterfully executed crime novel, we are treated to a portrait of a man dealing with an impending life change. Mr. Rankin gives us an unflinching look at the underlying pressures and drives facing a man who’s life work is nearly ended. I reject the use of the word “done”, because it is clear from the earliest moments of this book that Rebus feels he is leaving many tasks unfinished. The biggest, the failure to take down a known organized crime boss, is becoming an obsession for him. It is provident, then, when threads of the case start leading back to his wily nemesis. Throw in a Russian ex-patriot tycoon, the Russian Consulate, the largest bank in Scotland, and the leader of Scotland’s powerful Nationalist opposition party, and this case mushrooms into an apparently impenetrable cloud. Motives abound, but the hard evidence doesn’t. And just as it looks like things can’t get any tougher, Rebus’ superiors look like they will bow to the political pressure from above and quash the investigation before it gets a foothold.
This is my first exposure to Ian Rankin, and I found the world he has built around his chief protagonist to be layered and deep. The relationships described in the text are warm and comfortable, with the easy familiarity of characters long established. Mr. Rankin’s skill is evident in that we are able to pick up on the undercurrents of the personal dramas without having them spelled out. Brilliantly nuanced, and incredibly realistic, the reader feels like he has just joined the team. I derived great pleasure from learning about these characters at a natural pace, and never was reminded that I was reading a work of fiction.
One of the best things about this book is that Rankin presents his characters as human. There are no supermen here. Each member of his cast is burdened by doubts and insecurities. Rebus himself, known as a cantankerous pursuer of truth and right, has his own tale of misconduct, and his own demons that hound him. Further, there is no rosy, fairy tale future proposed for a man that has sacrificed everything to do the job he loves. The unsettling question is posed often – What does a man who has made his career his life do when the time for working is over? And true to life, there is no easy or simple answer given. The bleakness of Rebus’ future is set out in terms that are haunting, compelling, and above all, convincingly real.
This is usually the place in a review that I start to list the things I didn’t like about a work. On this occasion, however, I am delighted to say that I found nothing lacking in this story, except that at 421 pages, it was too damned short. Of course, I have that complaint about every well crafted book I read, and it’s said that the entertainer’s creed is “always leave them wanting more.” Well, I do! The good news is that Mr. Rankin has produced a number of stories featuring this wonderful cast, so I will be well provisioned as I await his next release.
I heartily recommend this book to all crime enthusiasts.You will not find a better read in the old-school, Noir tradition than Ian Rankin’s Exit Music.