The game of tic, tac, toe goes by a very different name in the U.K.— Noughts (as in zeros) and crosses (as in cross or X it out). It’s a game, that if one is an experienced player, can end in stalemate over and over and over again. And unfortunately, the pursuit of justice can be pretty much stalemated even by a small error here and there. There are no clerical errors in this novel to bung things up, but there are plenty of wrong turns. John Rebus, master detective looks more like Inspector Clueless or Clouseau at times in this novel. And that is because what is happening in this novel has to do with his past.
All of us have things in our past, things we have done wrong, or stupid things, people we haven’t treated quite right, that could come back to haunt us later. And that happens with a vengeance to John Rebus in this first novel in his now long running series of excellent novels. One of the reasons John is not very good at solving this case is because he has stuffed the most traumatic part of his past into a jail cell in the back of his brain. The problem is, that when you stuff your past, as the counselors will tell you, eventually the bills come due. Eventually the truth will out usually in mid-life (remember the mid-life crisis syndrome), and if what you have done in the past is bad enough to make someone want revenge, and plan it, then the past can come back not merely to haunt you but to bite you.
One of the lessons I learned from reading this novel second instead first, and reading the third one first (see the previous review on this blog of Tooth and Nails) is that you should never do that with a thriller writer— because, you may know how the plot of the first novel will turn out before you get very far in the novel. That happened to me this time, but I still enjoyed the novel a lot.
This story, like Tooth and Nail, introduces us to some characters of importance on a ongoing basis in this series— John’s brother, Michael the hypnotist. John’s ex-wife, and his daughter Samantha. We learn a good deal about John’s fragile past— he is pushed past the limit in his special forces military training, and he has in due course, a nervous breakdown. After which… he becomes a policeman, though some strings were pulled to make that happen.
What makes these novels pulse with life is not just good lean prose, or interesting characters, or believable plotting, or even good chase scenes. What makes them so interesting is that the evil is really evil in these stories, and the good is believably flawed. Good….but still flawed, which is an accurate to description of the police in some ways.
I would certainly recommend this novel, and this series to those who love crime thrillers and love to get absorbed into a good story. But this alert— these books are hard to put down once you’ve started them… and they are not for the faint of heart. Rankin has been profoundly influenced by another famous Edinburgh writer— Robert Louis Stevenson, and not by the Treasure Island part of his ouevre, rather by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.