Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Scottish writer Ian Rankin has been a force to be reckoned with in crime fiction for several years, and his Inspector John Rebus has become one of crime fiction’s most popular sleuths. A series like this wouldn’t be as much without including at least one of Rebus’ adventures, so today, let’s take a closer look at Exit Music.
The novel begins ten days before Rebus’ scheduled retirement with the discovery of a dead man on King’s Stables Road, a not-very-populated street. It looks at first as though he’s the victim of a mugging gone very wrong. The victim’s soon identified as Russian dissident poet Alexander Todorov. Inspector Rebus and DS Siobhan Clarke begin the task of tracing Todorov’s movements just before his death. The Powers That Be are interested in having this case quietly closed; a group of powerful Russian businessmen are interested in investing some much-desired capital into Edinburgh, and no-one at the top wants that plan to fall through. The more Rebus, Clarke and their team uncover, though, the clearer it becomes that this is more than a simple case of a mugging gone too far. Matters get more complex when it turns out that Todorov was not popular with this Russian clique, especially one of its leaders, Sergei Andropov, who was actually heard to say he wanted Todorov dead. The team feels a real sense of urgency, too, since Rebus and Clarke want this case closed before Rebus’ last day.
Soon after the investigation into Todorov’s death begins, there’s another death. Local recording engineer Charles Riordan dies and his studio goes up in flames. Rebus and Clarke begin to think his death is linked with Todorov’s when they discover that Todorov had had a recording session at Riordan’s studio shortly before his murder. Now it looks as though there’s a conspiracy at work, and Rebus and Clarke try to get to the heart of it. And then Rebus discovers that this Russian clique has had associations with Edinburgh crime boss Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty. The chance that Cafferty might have been involved in Todorov’s murder is all Rebus needs to spur him on to try to put his nemesis away. And then there’s another dramatic event, and just days before he’s to retire, Rebus gets suspended. In the end, painstaking police work, and some astute observations point Rebus and Clarke on the right path. They find out who killed Todorov and Riordan and they discover that neither killing is really what it first seemed.
Several important elements tie this novel together. One of them is that it’s a police procedural. So throughout the novel, we follow the team as they interview people, make sense of lab and forensics reports, follow up on leads and so on. In fact, Rebus gets very important pieces of evidence through those clues. We see the long hours and the stress of police work, too. Rankin also gives readers a look “behind the scenes” at the police station. There are briefings, interviews and the routine of life at the station.
Because this is a police procedural, we also see how the detectives use the connections they have within law enforcement and with the press and other members of the community. Rebus and the team get valuable information from forensics professionals, medical examiners and Scene of Crime Officers (SOCO). And at one point, Rebus wants some information on some of the members of Edinburgh’s Russian community and their possible ties to powerful local people. So he visits journalist Mairie Henderson to get whatever background she can find. This makes the story quite realistic. In real life, solving a murder is very rarely the work of just one person. Most of the time, police detectives depend on teamwork to get the job done. That’s very evident in this novel.
Another element we see in this novel is a set of multiple plot threads that seem to run parallel, but are related. It’s not easy to create more than one strong plot thread in the same novel without distracting the reader, but Rankin’s made that a specialty. Here, the main plot is the case of Alexander Todorov’s murder and later, that of Charles Riordan. But there’s also the thread of Rebus’ long-running conflict with Cafferty and the dramatic event that leads to Rebus’ suspension. There’s also the plot thread of Rebus’ retirement and the preparations for it. As he’s preparing for his last day, Rebus reflects on what he’s going to do next:
“Monday morning, his alarm clock would be redundant. He could spend all day over breakfast, stick his suit back in the wardrobe, to be pulled out again only for funerals….He’d wondered often if the only thing…was to clear out of the city altogether. His flat would buy him a fair-sized house elsewhere…But he couldn’t see himself ever leaving Edinburgh.”
In the end, Rankin doesn’t tell us exactly what Rebus will do, and that makes for an interesting possibility that Rebus will appear again.
The characters, especially Rebus, are another important element in this story. Some of them, such Siobhan Clarke, have been an important part of the series for quite a long time. We’ve watched them grow and evolve, and fans of the series know them as they might know old friends. And yet, although I recommend reading the Rebus series in order, it’s not necessary in order to get caught up in this plot and follow the mystery. In particular we see how Clarke has “grown into” her job. Rebus sees it, too, although it’s hard for him to let go. For instance, at one point, they’re interrogating a suspect:
“Rebus watched as she [Clarke] took a moment to compose herself. She gave another look in his direction and offered a smile. He nodded his reply.
‘Your turn now,’ he was telling her.”
Rebus himself is, of course, the main character in this novel and he is a complex, interesting person. Throughout the novel, we see his characteristic independence, passion for his work, and notable difficulty with “playing by the rules.” He’s a loner, but he has learned to appreciate the work of his team-mates and he’s happy in his way to see Clarke come into her own, so to speak. All of the trademark Rebus traits (the music, the sardonic humour, the toughness, and the reflectiveness) are here, too.
Finally, there’s Edinburgh itself. Rankin’s Edinburgh has its seamy “underbelly” and Rebus isn’t afraid to go there when it’s necessary. But it’s obvious that Rebus loves his hometown and the reader is really “placed” in the city:
“Instead of heading straight on in the direction of the Mound, he took a fork at Greyfriars Bobby and descended in the Grassmarket. Plenty of pubs still open and people loitering…When he’d first moved to Edinburgh, the Grassmarket had been a dump – much of the Old Town, in fact, had been in dire need of a face lift…There were people who said that Edinburgh never changed, but this was patently untrue – it was changing all the time.”
Against this unmistakable Edinburgh background, Rankin weaves the plot threads together using the police procedural context. And of course, there are the unforgettable characters. But what’s your view? Have you read Exit Music? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 28 February/Tuesday 1 March – The Cat Who Could Read Backwards – Lilian Jackson Braun
Monday 7 March/Tuesday 8 March – The Case of the Missing Servant: From the Files of Vish Puri, Most Private Investigator – Tarquin Hall
Monday 14 March/Tuesday 15 March – Last Rituals – Yrsa Sigurðardóttir