Short stories are, or tend to be, what they say they are. The narrative arc is shorter, plot and character development is svelte, and you get to the climax a lot quicker. Interestingly enough, some writers, who are excellent short story writers (think O. Henry) are not much good at the novel, and vice versa. This cannot be said of Ian Rankin. In fact, as the Introduction to Beggar’s Banquet makes clear enough, Rankin began his writing career by writing short stories, including award winning ones like two of those in this collection ‘A Deep Hole’ and “Herbert in Motion’.
Naturally enough, I purchased this collection because it had seven John Rebus stories in it. What was immediately noticeable about these stories is that they fit the period in the Rebus epic during which they were written. For example, the first story in the volume ‘Trip, Trap’ transpires while Rebus has a relationship with Dr. Patience Atkins. If you come at these Rebus short stories expecting the same kind of satisfaction and development as his novels, indeed if you come at them after you have read all the Rebus novels, you are bound to feel they ended too quickly. But make no mistake, these short stories are often excellent, and sometimes are real corkers.
There are two interesting other features to this collection. There is one period piece, set in 1793-94 in Edinburgh, during the time of Sir Walter Scott. It’s interesting enough, and the diction shows that Rankin can write a period piece, but it’s not his forte. The other interesting item in this volume is more like a little novella. It is the last addition to the volume entitled ‘Death is not the End’, and it is 55 pages long. It tells the tale of how Rebus helps out an old friend and neighbor from his days growing up in Fife. It also features two of the other important characters in the Rebus novels Siobhan Clarke and Farmer Watson, Rebus’ boss.
Rankin is a master at two things that work well either in a novel or a good short story: 1) the surprise ending, and 2) the unexpected plot twist (not necessarily at the end of the story). Several of these stories genuinely did surprise me. I especially liked The Hanged Man. The nice thing about short stories is that you can read one a day or a night, when you have a little time, but couldn’t quite invest in an entire novel due to work or travel.
There is of course such a thing as summer beach reading, which usually amounts to novels. You don’t hear much about summer beach short stories. My suggestion would be that you read the Rebus novels, or at least some of the best ones (like Tooth and Nail, Black and Blue, The Hanging Garden, A Question of Blood etc.) first, then turn to the short stories. Then the short stories serve as a nice little icing on the cake. But if you really want to get to know Rebus the detective, you need to invest in the novels.