Writers of fiction come in all shapes and sizes. Some are better at short stories and perhaps the odd novella. Some are better at the full length novel. Some are good at both. But not many. Think Edgar Alan Poe or for that matter O’ Henry or Ferrell Sams, or on the other hand, think of P.D. James or Agatha Christie or Ellis Peters. When it comes to mysteries or who dunnits or detective stories it does seem that the writer is either good at one sort of composition or the other. Not however in the case of Ian Rankin. He is a switch hitter. He can do novels, even lengthy ones, and he can do short stories that are real corkers. And now we have in one volume the complete John Rebus short stories— all 591 pages of them (also available in audio-book on CD form). Rankin is first rank these days when it comes to British detective fiction, and it’s a blessing to have all his short stories in one place. My one real complaint is there is not enough Siobhan Clarke, Rebus’ main partner in crime solving other than Brian Holmes, in these stories. Rebus comes across in these stories is an all too solitary character. But what a character he is. His ability to solve real brain teasing crimes— thefts, murders, graft and corruption, rivals that of Sherlock Holmes, and like Holmes his creator is an Edinburgh man. Edinburgh in fact has given us Sir Walter Scott, and Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Lewis Stevenson, and J.K. Rowling….. as well as Rankin. The city apparently is fertile ground for the furtive mind with a considerable imagination.
The short stories in this volume span the whole career of John Rebus, all thirty five or so years of it, and even into retirement. Early on we have Rebus who is at least a nominal Christian, which is one of the reasons for his burning passion for justice. Later we have a more cynical Rebus, hardened by seeing too much of the ‘ways of the world’. At all points we have the master detective who is at one and the same time both inscrutable and humorous, both stubborn and yet vulnerable, both hard working as a cop and yet a rule bender, both aggravating and exhilarating. He is one of the most interesting characters ever concocted for mysteries or crime fiction. There is never a dull moment for Rebus, a character Rankin dreamed up in 1985 and has been breathing life into ever since, continually developing his character over many short stories and novels.
Ian Rankin is a smart enough writer to follow one of the most basic rules of fiction— write what you know, and what Rankin knows is Edinburgh, which is the basic setting for all these stories. Thus it is, that you learn about a city and its history all the while being intrigued by a good mystery. As it turns out Rankin’s Edinburgh with its unique Scottish ethos is every bit as interesting as P.D. James’ thoroughly English London.