If you are a movie buff, you will know the classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart plays a deeply troubled man in Bedford Falls, and is regularly talking about ‘the Falls’. Ian Rankin’s 12th novel in the Rebus series also has this title, but it is a horse of a very different color. Sometimes truth is truly stranger than fiction. This particular novel is based a little bit on true events. Mr. Rankin became fascinated with the Burke and Hyde saga, which of course prompted the Jekyll and Hyde story of Stevenson. But part of the Hyde saga is the finding of small coffins on Arthur’s Seat, a famous volcanic crag on the south side of Edinburgh, found after various of the famous crimes of Burke and Hide, including the story about ‘resurrection men’ (persons who dig up bodies to have medical research done on them….or other more unspeakable things).
Sometimes serial murderers leave signatures. Sometimes even copy cats of serial killers leave the same signatures. And when something like a signature… say a small coffin with a baby doll in it, shows up, the assumption is there must be some connection between the earlier killings and the later ones. But of course there could be no connection between killings in the early 19th century and those at the cusp of the 21rst century, except perhaps in conception. The problem of course is, when multiple copy cat signatures show up— are you dealing with one or multiple criminals? Inquiring minds want to know. And why exactly was a miniature coffin found by the Falls– a small village with a very small water fall outside of Edinburgh?
This novel is one of Rankin’s best, and it is, to put it mildly– spooky. Pathologists can be spooky people anyway— constantly vivisecting bodies, weighing organs, etc. when there has been a crime against the deceased. Some novels just have an ethos which begins to get under your skin…. you begin to feel like a ghoulish criminal is likely to show up in the very room you are in, so real has been the description in the novel. This is one of those novels.
John Rebus is now on the down slope of his career, and seems to be unable to avoid getting in trouble with his superiors because of his propensity to break rules. So, usually what happens is he gets taken off a case, or given a minor role, and ends up bugging DI Sioban Clarke (first name pronounced Shi-vaughn) to death by ‘helping her’ solve the case. His drinking has not slacked off, nor has he quit smoking, and his religion has become even more dormant, or even doubtful. At one point in this novel when his favorite Catholic priest dies, he can’t even bring himself to attend the funeral because, ‘he doesn’t believe in heaven anymore’. Clearly, he has seen too many cruel deaths even of good people, too much tragedy, and it’s taken it’s toll on him. At one point in the novel (p. 144), he tells his priest friend Conan (not long before his death), that he prefers the questions to the theological answers about why life is what it is. Rebus has no time for ‘certainties’ in a world filled with uncertainties.
On the upside, in this novel John Rebus finally finds someone willing to give love with him a chance. Her name is Jean, and she is a curator at the Museum of Scotland. In various ways, she is like Rebus, and shares some of the same interests in the arcane and even bizarre. She is the very gal who curated an exhibit of the ancient miniature coffins found on Arthur’s Seat in the 19th century… and now one has been found by ‘the Falls’, and a co-ed has gone missing. Jean will play an integral role to the solving of this crime, and will remain ‘in the picture’ in novel 13 aptly titled ‘the resurrection men’ only in this case it refers to the reviving of careers in peril, particularly that of John Rebus.
The Falls should probably be read back to back with Resurrection Men because there is a good flow to the story telling about the later part of John Rebus’ career. Rankin is a master at misdirection, and though you may think you have figured out who the real villain is in the Falls, perhaps as early as 150 pages into the story, Rankin has the constant capacity to surprise and entertain. I suspect most readers of this novel will be saying ‘I didn’t see that coming’.
But they will also perhaps be saddened by exchanges like the following one, as John Rebus stands outside the church door where the funeral of Conor Leary is happening….
A pathologist comes over to him that he has worked with over many years and asks if he is going into the church, asks if he is o.k., but John Rebus shakes his head no….and then says “‘I don’t believe in heaven.’ That was the horror of it. This life was the only one you got. No redemption afterwards, no chance of wiping the slate clean and starting over. “It’s alright” Curt was saying….”You’ll be alright.” “Will I?” Rebus said. “Then there’s no justice in the world.” (pp. 156-57). Yes these novels raise deep theological questions— and are well worth the read.