Ian Rankin may be an acclaimed master of plot but it’s his prose that always hooks me first. It happened again last week within the very first sentences of his new book, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, in which his protagonist John Rebus comes back from retirement.
Forced to leave the Edinburgh police force several years earlier due to the age limit, Rankin’s moody, rogue detective is now a civilian working for a Scottish cold case squad known as the Serious Crime Review Unit. After Nina Hazlitt, the mother of a teenaged girl missing since 1999, convinces him that her daughter’s vanishing may be linked to other cases, Rebus muscles his way into the active investigation of the most recent disappearance, headed by none other than his longtime colleague Siobhan Clarke. There, the aging and cantankerous ex-inspector is confronted with new police technology and a younger generation of squeaky-clean, by-the-book cops who frown upon his drinking, smoking, and unorthodox methods, like his cozying-up to known criminal underworld figures.
Unlike the other novels in the series (at least the ones I’ve read), Standing in Another Man’s Grave gets Rankin’s hero out of Edinburgh and his comfort zone. Rebus does quite a bit of traveling up and down northern Scotland, its coast and the Highlands, musing in the process about the country and its people, “a nation of five million huddled together as if cowed by the elements and the immensity of the landscape surrounding them.” All along the way, Rankin expertly spins a suspenseful tale and around the halfway mark, as the stakes rise, the book becomes impossible to put down.
Not every loose end gets tied up in Standing in Another man’s Grave, and there are a few readers who will probably tire of some of the countless countryside descriptions and poetically peculiar village names—Tillicoultry, Aviemore, Strathpeffer, Auchterarder, Pitlochry…
I wasn’t one of them, though. I’ve always had a strange affinity for Irish and Scottish Crime Fiction writers (Ian Rankin was my very first; many have since followed: Ken Bruen, John Connolly, Stuart Neville, Allan Guthrie, Stuart MacBride, to name just a few). And somewhere in the back of my mind, I’ve always wondered why that was. Standing in Another Man’s Grave may have provided me with an answer.
The first clue was the aforementioned descriptions of the Scottish wilderness; the second, a book Nina Hazlitt gives John Rebus, an encyclopedia about the myths and legends of the British Isles (with, as she puts it, “quite a lot from Scotland.”) Both reminded me of the place I used to call home.
I spent the first twenty years of my life in Brittany, France, which, like Ireland and Scotland, is one of the six recognized Celtic Nations (along with Wales, Cornwall and The Isle of Man). These are defined as areas where a Celtic language is still spoken and clear Celtic cultural traits have survived—art, music, dance and literature (the latter having been influenced by shared Celtic folk tales, such as the ones mentioned in Nina Hazlitt’s book, that fascinated me as a child.)
Of course, there are many other similarities between our native lands: verdant and rocky territories surrounded by cold, fierce seas under misty gray skies; tough and extremely stubborn inhabitants whom, at one point or other, all fought for their nation’s autonomy; even the staggering number of pubs or bars per capita—where else are you going to go when it rains so damn much? All of this may explain the kinship I feel with these writers, pointing to something that goes deeper that the written word on the page and the stories told: a common ancestry as storytellers.
It took traveling through Scotland aboard John Rebus’s beaten Saab for me to realize this. So I thank Ian Rankin not only for a riveting read but also a trip through time and a forgotten, beloved landscape.
Named by George Pelecanos as a “rising stars of the new generation of noir novelists,” Ro Cuzon is the author of Under the Dixie Moon, a Library Journal Staff Pick for Best of 2012, and Under the Carib Sun. His third book in the Adel Destin crime series, Crescent City Stomp, will be published later this year by The Rogue Reader. He lives and writes in New Orleans.