I’m going to begin my review of Ian Rankin’s masterful Black and Blue by doing something I’ve tried to refrain from doing lately: bitching about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). For the uninitiated – in other words, readers of my reviews who don’t know what I’m up to in my life off the computer – my problems with the CCSS aren’t some Glenn Beckian, “Obama’s a secret Muslim so let’s cancel AP US History” goofabout. Nope: my problems with it are manifold, very real, and based in the twenty years I’ve spent in the classroom as, first, a high school English teacher and, currently, a teacher educator. I’m not going to bore you to tears by illustrating all of them here, but what I am going to do is touch on how Rankin’s Rebus mystery series, and this book in particular, do a bang-up job of putting the lie to a couple of the CCSS’ central tenets.
This is the eighth novel to feature Detective Inspector John Rebus and the fourth one I’ve read since I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project, but this is actually the first time I’ve written one of these lengthy reviews on one of them. So, to catch you up before I plunge headfirst into the CCSS mire, D.I. Rebus is a rumpled alcoholic loner who’s largely been a failure in his personal life because of his tendency to obsess over the cases he’s assigned. The series takes place in and around Edinburgh, Scotland, and, rather than emulate the largely dopey tendency of American mystery series to feature a killer of the week in each book (see Sandford, Patterson, Deaver, et. al.), Rankin’s series is deeply Scottish and is concerned more centrally with mysteries that plumb the depths of British identity. Rankin is, for my money, the best mystery writer working today (even better than my beloved Mo Hayder).
What does any of this have to do with the CCSS? Two things, which I’ll take in turn – and I promise I’ll be talking about Black and Blue soon.
David Coleman, the architect of the English Language Arts standards and self-acknowledged unqualified non-teacher, is on record as believing students shouldn’t be encouraged to bring their prior knowledge to bear on a text, focusing instead only on what they can learn from “the four corners of the page.” The most asinine example of this is his series of lessons on teaching the Gettysburg Address, which he believes should be done without sharing the cultural and historical context surrounding the delivery of Lincoln’s most famous speech. At this point I invite you to think of a time when you haven’t brought your prior knowledge and experience with you when you read. Is it even possible? When I read I’m constantly holding the text up against what I already know about the world, drawing on that prior knowledge as a way of illuminating the story (or essay or article or whatever). It seems even more important for younger, less confident readers to see this as a viable strategy. If nothing else, it lets them know what gaps in their understanding they need to fill. If they’re not engaging in this sort of metacognitive thought, it’s unlikely they’ll get what they need from whatever it is they’re reading.
Which brings me back to Ian Rankin. His Rebus series is not especially well-known in the States. You can find a smattering of his stuff at your local Barnes & Noble, but he’s not exactly a name up there in recognition with John Patterson (which I’d argue isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that’s an essay for another time). I chalk up a lot of this anonymity to a lack of cultural knowledge. As I mentioned earlier, Rankin’s series is inextricably linked to its Scottish setting and characters, and he doesn’t really hold the reader’s hand. If you pick up one of his books and don’t have at least a passing familiarity with Scotland, British government, the geography and economy of the U.K., Scots slang, etc., etc., you’re going to have a tough go of it. In other words, if you don’t have the requisite prior knowledge to draw on, the four corners of the page aren’t going to do much to help you out. Because I’m an unrepentant (and nerdy – oh so nerdy) Anglophile, I’ve got a decent understanding of what I need to make sense of the story, and part of the fun of it (for me, at least) is putting that understanding into play. It’s crucial to my enjoyment of the series, just as I’m sure the prior knowledge you bring to your favorite genres is crucial to your own. But David Coleman says it’s not important. And in that he’s dead wrong.
The second way Black and Blue has some important things to tell us about the deficiencies of the CCSS deals with the way the standards enforce faulty distinctions in text types. In the great middle school dance that is the CCSS, “informational texts” are the 7th grade boys huddled on one side of the gymnasium and “literary texts” are the girls arrayed on the other side. If we’re to believe the CCSS, these two groups never touch and never dance – they’re kept artificially apart, probably by David Coleman and a yardstick. The implication in the standards is that we read literary texts for enjoyment (and also for evisceration, as we examine them for all manner of things adored by teachers and hated by students) and informational texts to learn things. While I wholeheartedly agree that we should resist the urge to overemphasize efferent readings of texts meant to be read aesthetically, the notion that we don’t learn anything from literary texts is laughable.
Black and Blue illustrates this perfectly. At the start of the eighth book in the series, Rebus has been drummed out of his previous post because he annoyed the wrong people in Book 7. Now he’s officially trying to figure out who killed an oil refinery worker and unofficially trying to solve a series of murders that look remarkably like the work of Bible John, a killer operating in the late 1960s. At the same time, Rebus himself becomes the focus of an internal affairs investigation, thanks to some question marks that exist from a case he and his mentor solved early in his career. As with all of Rankin’s previous books, it’s intense, nail-biting stuff, twisty-turny and darkly funny. By this point Rebus practically leaps off the page, a flawed cop who seems all too real, and it’s to Rankin’s credit that he paints both the murder investigations and the internal affairs chess match with the same intensity. But here’s the thing: Even while I found myself dragged into Rebus’ struggles with alcohol and authority and enjoying Rankin’s way with hard-boiled dialogue, I learned at least three things:
• Bible John was a real killer, operating in Glasgow in 1969. He murdered three women before dropping completely off the radar.
• Aberdeen, Scotland became known as the “Oil Capital of Europe” in the mid-1970s, and refineries in the North Sea are still active.
• The Shetland Islands have more in common with Scandinavia than with Scotland. They’re also really windy.
The above bullets are just snapshots of the first three things that came to mind, and there’s more I picked up about each of them than I cared to include here (especially about the lives of workers on oil rigs). But all of them illustrate the fallacy of keeping informational and literary texts at arm’s length. We can learn things about the world from novels and short stories and poetry (I know more about 19th Century sailing vessels than I ever wanted to know, thanks to Dan Simmons’ horror novel, The Terror), and we can appreciate the grace and craft of well-written nonfiction (see the beginning of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for a prime example).
And this is maybe the perfect encapsulation of my problems with the CCSS: they’re too limiting. They enforce artificial boxes that reduce the study of English Language Arts to categories and formulas and easily assessed terminology. Rather than help students see the intricate web of relationships that bind history and literature and culture and film and the sciences and art, we compartmentalize all of it and warn students that we should never mix the contents of these boxes we’ve created for them. It’s a mistake that nevertheless reinforces the questionable CCSS promise of “College and Career Readiness.” Existing in the world goes beyond just being college and career ready; it’s learning how to navigate the very real complexities that connect each minute of the day to the text.
And, oh yeah– Black and Blue gets 4 out of 5 stars.
R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992)