The Dying of the Light

Rankin hangingI never saw it coming, but somehow mystery became my genre of choice.  I read very little horror or fantasy anymore and, as I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve only dabbled minimally in science-fiction.  I’ve never read a western I liked – unless we’re going to count Cormac McCarthy as a writer of westerns, in which case, okay, I like him – and I suppose most of my reading fits into that very nebulous non-genre of literary fiction.  You know: T.C. Boyle, Russell Banks, Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, Chuck Palahniuk, Jennifer Egan, and so on.  But starting in the late 90s with John Sandford’s Prey series and James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, I slowly started to gravitate to more and more mystery fiction.  This was cemented when my wife hooked me on Mo Hayder’s Jack Caffrey novels (starting with the masterful Birdman, a book you should read immediately) and, more recently still, when I picked up Knots and Crosses, the first of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus books.  Now, even though I’m still fairly picky (no John Patterson or Sue Grafton, thankyouverymuch), rumor of newish high-quality mysteries will make my ears perk up.

Even though I enjoy reading them, I don’t think I have the mental dexterity to write one of my own.  The trick, which Ian Rankin so ably demonstrates in The Hanging Garden (his ninth Inspector Rebus title, with ten to go), is to set as many disparate pieces on the field as possible and then make them collide in satisfying ways.  In The Hanging Garden, Rankin somehow manages to bring together an Eastern European prostitution ring, a reputed Nazi war criminal, the Yakuza, the Rat Line (a rumored post-WWII pipeline by which the Vatican and the Allies smuggled high-ranking Nazi figures to the West), and drug smuggling in a way that’s sort of breathtaking in its intricacy.  It never seems forced, and, most importantly, even though we see the pieces and know they’re going to come together eventually, Rankin makes it seem both logical and inevitable instead of manipulative.

The thing that continues to set Rankin’s series apart from the rest of the pack, though, is its main character.  Unlike a lot of detective fiction, Detective Inspector John Rebus isn’t an action hero.  He’s a rumpled, cynical, recovering alcoholic who’s obsessive about his job and music from the 60s, in that order.  He’s got a deadpan sense of humor and he isn’t especially likable, but his tenacity makes him a formidable opponent (he likens himself in one book to a terrier who doesn’t know when to let go of the bone).  And even though he constantly treads the line between right and wrong in the course of solving a case, he doesn’t fall into the tired stereotype of the brash cop who proudly breaks all the rules.  Rebus just does what he does and doesn’t make much of an attempt to rationalize it.  He isn’t wracked with guilt, but he doesn’t flaunt his rule-breaking.  He is, at heart, a pragmatist.

In The Hanging Garden, one way this pragmatism manifests itself is through Rebus’ relationship with Gerald Cafferty, an Edinburgh-based mob boss he was responsible for capturing and imprisoning several books ago.  When Rebus’ daughter is hospitalized in a hit-and-run that appears to be a warning sign to Rebus as part of an escalating mob turf war, the detective turns to Cafferty to find out who was responsible for his daughter’s injuries.  In my experience, every good mystery has one or two moments that make your heart race.  The prison exchange between Rebus and Cafferty is one of those moments.

‘My daughter got hurt.  Funny that, so soon after we’d had our little chat.’

‘Hurt how?’

‘Hit and run.’

Cafferty was thoughtful. ‘I don’t pick on civilians.’

‘Convince me,’ Rebus said.

‘Why should I bother?’

‘The conversation we had … What you asked me to do.’

‘There’s something you’ve forgotten.  I lost a son, remember.  Think I could do that to another father?  I’d do a lot of things, Rebus, but not that, never that.’

Rebus held the stare. ‘All right,’ he said.

‘You want me to find out who did it?’

Rebus nodded slowly.

‘That’s your price?’

‘I want them delivered to me.  I want you to do that, whatever it takes.

‘And meantime, you’re my man?’

Rebus stared at him. ‘I’m your man,’ he said.

Some of my excitement at this passage comes from the men’s accumulated history, at knowing exactly just how much water has passed beneath that particular bridge.  But it’s also the scene’s economy and brevity, how so much is said with so little, and what exists between the lines.  In Rebus’ world, there’s often a gray area between good and bad, where cops break the rules and the gangsters operate under a strict moral code.

The problem of reviewing a mystery is saying enough to entice without spoiling the fun.  And make no mistake: Rankin’s books are immeasurably fun.  The cast of supporting characters is rich and deep, the stakes are high, and the book’s moral center is delightfully ambiguous.  In my previous review of one of his books I said Ian Rankin was the best mystery writer currently working.  The Hanging Garden will be tough to top.

Side note:

Music fans will likely recognize the book’s title (and the lyrics scattered throughout) as belonging to a song of the same name by The Cure.  The title doesn’t have much to do with the story, except that in keeping with the prevailing mood of early-80s Cure, The Hanging Garden is easily Rankin’s bleakest book to date.


Current listening:

Echodrone five

Echodrone – Five (2015)

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