In a House of Lies
By Ian Rankin
Little, Brown, 2018
Ian Rankin’s new novel, In a House of Lies, is his twenty-third featuring his signature character, now-retired police inspector John Rebus, which might not at first seem like much of a daunting obstacle in light of the length of some ongoing mystery series until one additional element is factored in: it’s been Rankin’s mostly-sincere conceit that his Rebus novels are unfolding in what novelists tend to refer to as “real time.” In book-by-book terms, this translates to his main character picking up dents and scuffs that he actually retains from one adventure to the next.
Rebus retired a few books ago, so the police-procedural heavy lifting of these later novels has necessarily been done by other characters, with Rebus being invoked as an éminence who’s increasingly grise, somebody whose long association with Police Scotland gives him a kind of informal connection to almost every bizarre murder case that crosses the dockets of his much-younger former colleagues and successors. As one of those figures somewhat mordantly puts it, “John Rebus has a way of turning up.”
The former colleague in this latest novel is Rebus’ old friend Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke, who’s temporarily in disgrace with the brass in the Anti-Corruption Unit (series fans will recall that Rebus himself has been in that situation many times in his long career; Rankin’s heroes often touch pitch but are never defiled). When events at the beginning of In a House of Lies re-open a cold case with gruesome new twists involving a dead investigator found locked in a car with his ankles shackled with police-issue handcuffs, Clarke almost immediately finds herself in informal consultation with the uneasily-retired Rebus.
The only drawback of this new arrangement is that too many of these consultations sound like they should be taking place in a doctor’s office:
‘Cold weather’s a bugger,’ he explained.
‘You’re doing okay, though?’
‘Seem to have survived another winter. Annual spirometry test last week - lungs at seventy per cent.’
‘Winter’s not quite over yet - supposed to be snow on the way from Russia, maybe a lot of it.’
‘A good reason to stay indoors.’
‘You’ve dropped a bit of weight, that must be helping.’
‘Who can afford food on a police pension? There are positives, though.’
‘If I catch an infection, it could be the death of me - the perfect excuse not to be sociable. Plus, I can’t visit any polluted cities like London.’
‘You had plans to go there?’
‘Not on your life.’
The device of keeping Rebus around as a kind of consulting Banquo’s Ghost is an obvious sop to the sentimentality of Rankin’s long-time readers, and it’s understandable: the Rebus novels, very much including this latest one, are police procedurals whittled to perfect points of character study and dour humor. But time is the enemy here: by admitting anything resembling real time into the series, Rankin introduces a conflict that can ultimately only be resolved in one way: Rebus’ involvement in each new case is just a bit more gratingly unlikely than the last, and as wonderful as it is to see this old character under any circumstances, Rankin’s skill at every other element, the characters, the pacing, the plot twists, is so honed that hauling wheezing old Rebus on-stage every single time feels increasingly unnecessary. Heresy of heresies, but it might be time for a bloody exit, and we’ll trust Rankin to leave no rubs nor botches in the work.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.