The Rankin File— Tooth and Nail

While I was in Edinburgh, there was a tour on offer, where one would apparently ride around and gawk at the famous writer’s houses etc. The writers from Edinburgh who were listed were Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, J.K. Rowling (yes Mrs. Potter herself), and Ian Rankin. The only one on this list I drew a blank on was the last mentioned Mr. Rankin (pictured above).

My friend and colleague, Larry Hurtado, enlightened me… “he’s a crime novelist, maybe the best in Britain, and his lead character John Rebus is like many of these other crime solvers– no longer married to anyone but his work, can’t sustain a relationship, periods of self-doubt, a real good instinct for solving crimes’.
He’s also the only crime writer I know of that throws some Gaelic in the novel from time to time, and Scottish slang as well (hoolit= drunk). Here is the Wiki summary about him (accessed May 6th) and note that he does live in Edinburgh, though he is not originally from there.

“Born 28 April 1960 in Cardenden, Fife, Rankin attended Beath High School, Cowdenbeath. After graduating from the University of Edinburgh, he moved to Tottenham, London for four years and then rural France for six while he developed his career as a novelist. He was a literature tutor at the University of Edinburgh, where he retains an involvement with the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Before becoming a full-time novelist he worked as a grape-picker, swineherd, taxman, alcohol researcher, hi-fi journalist, college secretary and punk musician.”

When I was in York, and went in one of the few remaining used and antiquarian bookstores around, I found two paperback Rankin novels. I began with the earliest of the two….. now called Tooth and Nail but originally called Wolfman. It originally appeared in 1992, so obviously, I am behind the times. It also appears that ten of his novels have been a series on the BBC… so… I have some catching up to do. Word up after reading the first novel— I am hooked. This guy really knows how to write. If I would liken him to anyone in terms of style, it would John Grisham, the prose is spare but effective, and he definitely knows how to move a story along. The last 50 pages had such an accelerated pace, I was looking for the brakes!! However Rankin has a much better, and more clever brand of humor, sometimes admittedly gallows humor, he injects into his novels. I like his metaphors— “that man has about as much chance of succeeding in solving this case as a shoe shine man on a nudist beach’

So, what is Tooth and Nail about? Well in the first place it is an oddity, because Inspector John Rebus’ normal beat is Edinburgh, but he has been called in to London to help solve a case involving a serial killer of women. And this killer is both ruthless and weird in what he does to his victims– including bite marks on the stomach of each one.

Here’s the published tease…..

“Scottish homicide detective John Rebus has been sent from “North of the Border” to help London police catch a serial killer with a gruesome M.O. Teamed with a London cop he wants to trust but can’t, Rebus lets a beautiful psychologist into the case develops a bizarre portrait of a killer who leaves bite marks and tears on each victim’s body. Now it’s only a question of who is going to get busted first: the cop with the accent who breaks all the rules–or the pyscho painting London with blood…”

One thing about Rankin is that sometimes the language can be… well rank, and of the four letter variety. But then he is dealing with a seamy subject, and some really evil criminals, so verisimilitude is the goal, one assumes. This of course was one of the odd things about P.D. James. The police seemed far too civil and refined in some cases. Not very blue collar or blue languaged. Not so in Rankin’s novels.

One of the things I like about a writer of this sort is his ability to leave clues while also offering red herrings. At several points in this novel you began to believe it could be any one of several major characters in the novel— other than Rebus and his London counterpart, George Flight. In other words, like any mystery writer worth their salt, he keeps you guessing… and frustrated until the end. In this case, you can’t figure out whether the killer is male or female.

Another aspect of this novel which is winsome is that the author paints a picture of John Rebus that includes his weaknesses and flaws. It makes the character more believable and interesting. Along the way you gain a feel for: 1) English and Scottish prejudices against each other; 2) resentments when an outside expert is brought into a case, hurting the ego of the local force; 3) the politics and machinery of the justice system in London, and much more. And oh yes— we have some romance for John Rebus as well. It is interesting as well that Rebus not only believes in God, and has attended church in Scotland, he even carries around a Bible with him. Not your usual hard-bitten secular cynical detective, but also a man with some sin and guilt on his ledger.

Since I am hooked…. I’m going back to square one, the first novel in the series, Knots and Crosses which first appeared in 1987. More anon.

  • phil

    Enjoy them Ben. My wife and I are massive fans and have read them all. The series keeps getting better and better. the portraits of Rebus and his colleagues are well-drawn and Rankin manages to engender some sympathy for Rebus from the reader too.


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