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Book Review: Saints of the Shadow Bible

By (January 20, 2014) No Comment

Saints of the Shadow Biblesaints of the shadow bible cover

by Ian Rankin,

Little, Brown, 2014


Just going by the numbers, it’s hard to believe Ian Rankin’s loyal fans have reached this, the nineteenth novel featuring his gruff, dyspeptic, signature character John Rebus – mainly because it’s seemed impossible all along that Rebus could hold onto his job as Detective Inspector on the mean streets of Edinburgh for more than three or four novels, tops. Rebus is a rule-breaker; he’s a drunk; he’s brutal to bad guys; he’s usually frowned upon by his by-the-book colleagues and superiors. Reading his adventures, you continuously expect him to be either fired or killed, or both, in short order.

But no, here he is starring in Rankin’s rippingly good latest book, Saints of the Shadow Bible, although there’s been a slight change which Rankin (and several of his characters) work for all the humor it’s worth: after having briefly left the police force and then decided to re-join, Rebus was forced to take a reduction in rank to Detective Sergeant, which places him technically under the command of his former protege (and another very popular Rankin character, Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke. And at a party at the dank headquarters of the Lothian and Borders precinct, while Rebus is uneasily looking at “people he’d worked alongside, but almost no one he would have invited back to his flat for whiskey and conversation,” he and Clarke spot a contingent of officers from the Professional Standards division (what American readers would know as Internal Affairs – cops who investigate other cops), including Malcolm Fox, yet another very popular Rankin character, star of his own series of novels revolving around the cases of ‘The Complaints,’ as they’re informally known.

The party features an old crony from Rebus’ long-ago days working at Summerhall, “a cop shop next door to the vet school on Summerhall Place,” and it also features both Elinor Macari, Solicitor General for Scotland, and just a slight touch of the offhand sexism that has characterized Rankin’s novels from the beginning (and which has done nothing to diminish their popularity with his countless female readers):

Macari looked as though she’d made several stops on her way to the party: hairdresser, cosmetics counter and boutique. Her large black-framed glasses accentuated the sharpness of her gaze. Having swept the room in an instant, she knew who needed greeting and who could be dismissed.

The tingling excitement Rankin fans will be feeling at the prospect of having these three characters in the same room together is immediately and masterfully put on hold as the plot takes up with Rebus and Clarke examining a car crash on a lonely stretch of road far on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The car was found smashed into a tree, its passenger, a young woman named Jessica Traynor, unconscious at the wheel but virtually uninjured. Before the two detectives go to visit her in the hospital, they examine the crash site, and once again Rankin displays his uncanny ability to invest even simple factual dialogue with a faint kind of lilt: “The supermarket worker called 999 just after eight in the evening,” Clarke says at one point, “no light left in the sky. No streetlamps either, just the distant glow from Edinburgh itself.”

Their encounter with Jessica Traynor’s father at the hospital also demonstrates the most prominent of the competencies that have kept Rebus in his job all these years – his Holmesian ability not only to see but to observe:

He wore the trousers from a pinstripe suit – the jacket was draped over the back of the chair next to his daughter’s bed. His white shirt was creased, and the cuff links had been removed so the sleeves could be rolled up. Rebus doubted the expensive-looking watch on his left wrist was a fake. He had taken off his tie at some point, and undone the top two buttons of his shirt, showing tufts of graying chest hair.

Of course, this encounter also displays what might be considered one of Rankin’s rare narrative weaknesses: he has a tendency to make his characters deliver their exposition in unbelievable, “Law & Order”-style ways. What worried father, taken from his daughter’s hospital bedside and asked about his wife, would rap out a line like: “We’re divorced. She lives in Florida with someone half her age who calls himself a ‘personal trainer'”? Rankin supporting characters do it all the time.

Even this little tic will bring a warm smile to the faces of Rankin’s millions of fans, and Saints of the Shadow Bible, with its police-conspiracy sub-plot (arising from that old Summerhall gang) bringing Rebus and Fox into direct confrontation with each other, is a hand-crafted gift for those fans. Rankin’s raw storytelling ability will make it every bit as accessible to first-time readers as all his other books, but those first-timers will only think they’ve read a smoothly competent ‘police-procedural’ mystery set in gritty urban Scotland. Long-time fans, on the other hand, will think they’ve died and gone to Heaven.