Standing in Another Man's Grave

Scottish detective John Rebus returns for another atmospheric mystery.

Standing in Another Man's Grave By Ian Rankin Little, Brown and Company 388 pp.

Edinburgh: rain, sleet, grayness; cigarettes and whiskey; cops and villains; the dead and the damaged. Ian Rankin did not invent this world (he acknowledges the influence of, among others, James Kelman), but he certainly immortalized it when he created Detective Inspector John Rebus, the investigator with the warhorse body and brooding mind who seemed to personify his city's toughness. Rebus first appeared in "Knots and Crosses" in 1987, and seventeen Rebus novels followed before Rankin retired the aging cop twenty years later. Like Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander, Robert Wilson's Javier Falcon, and other noble loners, Rebus was dispatched to the shadows. But now he's back. And Rankin, following a detour into more sensationalist fiction, has also returned to the restrained style and quotidian pace that distinguished the finest Rebus novels. 

 
The first sentence of Standing in Another Man's Grave is characteristically sly: "He'd made sure he wasn't standing too near the open grave." This is not Rebus the cop surveying a murder scene but Rebus the civilian attending the funeral of a former colleague. "[G]et the gold watch, and soon after they're on the slab," a fellow mourner cheerfully observes. Officially retired, Rebus inhabits a different kind of netherworld. Employed by the Cold Case Unit, he works "with the long dead, murder victims forgotten by the world at large." Rankin, at his best, is a master of economical description and laconic dialogue and in these early chapters he creates a pungent atmosphere of weariness, defeat, and nostalgia. "[S]omebody thinks they got away with it... knows they got away with it," Rebus is reminded each time he undoes the binding on an unsolved murder file.

Suddenly, the past looms into the present. Nina Hazlitt believes that her teenage daughter, who disappeared fourteen years earlier, was one of a series of victims whose bodies were never discovered – and whose murderer is at work again. Following news of a recent disappearance, Hazlitt revisits the police unit she once haunted. Rebus, by chance, takes her call and senses a connection. "Sally Hazlitt, Brigid Young, Zoe Beddows... 1999, 2002, 2008," his erstwhile protégé DI Siobhan Clarke scoffs, "You know as well as I do it's thin stuff." But Annette McKie, the latest missing teenager, was last seen, like the others, near the A9 motorway.

When a photograph of a desolate road sent from Annette's cellphone matches one sent from Zoe Beddows's phone years earlier, Rebus (and more reluctantly Clarke) travel north. The repartee between the two – Clarke ascending in rank and Rebus, as always, flouting authority – is satisfyingly familiar, but Rankin wisely avoids fond reminisces that might soften the edges of either personality. Similarly, characters such as crime boss Ger Cafferty (perversely indebted now to Rebus for saving his life) are both recognizable and surprisingly fresh while the new generation of gangsters – and detectives – seem bloodless by comparison. "He's an office manager, Siobhan," Rebus observes of Clarke's boss, "...could be CID or a company selling fitted kitchens." While Rebus could only be a cop, with a cop's memory for faded details and distant connections that, in this case, link yesterday and today, the killer and the killed.

Anna Mundow, a longtime contributor to The Irish Times and The Boston Globe, has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among other publications.

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