Monday, February 21, 2011

In The Spotlight: Ian Rankin's Exit Music

Hello, All,

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


  1. One of the interesting things about EXIT MUSIC was that Rankin had really painted himself into a corner by having Rebus age in real time, and people began to ask what he would do as Rebus got to the age of compulsory retirement. I have heard that it was even raised in the Scottish Parliament, with a suggestion that to accommodate Rankin/Rebus the retirement age could be made more flexible. Interestingly in the book I've just reviewed FATAL QUEST: WOODEND'S FIRST CASE, Sally Spencer it seems that Woodend got to the same point. This is something that many other writers have avoided by not telling how old their detective is and just letting him live on. Ruth Rendell's Reg Wexford is a case in point. He's on the verge of retirement but not quite at the point where he will have to go. The question has become one of which will exit first: Rendell or Wexford?

  2. Kerrie - I didn't know that about the Scottish Parliament. Interesting! And you're absolutely right. When writers have characters age in real time, it's hard to avoid those questions about what happens to characters when they reach compulsory retirement age. I wonder about that with Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch. That's the down side, I suppose, of the realism of a character aging.

    As you say, Rendell hasn't been specific about Wexford's age, so she can keep featuring him in mysteries without worrying about that. That's one thing that Colin Dexter avoided, too; we never really know Morse's exact age. Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti, either, I don't think. There is something to being somewhat vague about characters' ages. And I wonder, too, whether Wexford or Rendell will exit first...

    And folks, do check out Kerrie's fine review of Fatal Quest: Woodend's First Case.

  3. Sounds like a really cool read. I've never read Rankin before but when last in Canada, I picked up a novel - Watchman - written by him. He writes well although sometimes I get lost with the POV changes. But this will be put on my list.

  4. Clarissa - It may be just my view, but I, personally, prefer the Rebus series to Rankin's standalones. I really think you'll like the Rebus novels, and don't worry about POV changes; POV is pretty straightforward in this novel.

  5. I have only read a couple of the Rebus novels and they never really grabbed me. I think perhaps because I came to them after having seen the TV shows (which I didn't like) I couldn't quite get my head around the books. I plan on reading his more recent novel The Complaints because it's the start of another series (I think) and there's no pesky TV characters in my head to get in the way of my enjoyment.

  6. Exit Music was the first (and so far, only) Ian Rankin book I've read. I enjoyed it very much, and keep meaning to read the rest of them. I found Edinburgh was as much a character as any of the other characters, and really enjoyed how Rankin was able to make you really feel the city.

  7. I've not read this one and will have to put it on my list. Police procedurals are a favorite of mine and this character sounds really solid. I loved Edinburgh and would love to have a little fictional field trip. :)

  8. Bernadette - Isn't it interesting how watching the TV version of a book or series can really affect the way we think about the book? That's happened to me, too. If you didn't much enjoy the TV show, I'm not surprised the books didn't sweep you away. I'll look forward to reading what you think of The Complaints. It's about completely different characters from the ones in the Rebus novels.

    Belle - Rankin really places the reader in Edinburgh, doesn't he? That's one thing I like about his work, too. I enjoy novels where the reader gets a real sense of place. If you do get the chance to go back and read the series, I recommend starting with the first one, Knots and Crosses and moving forward, so you get to see the characters evolve.

    Elizabeth - You'll get lots of hefty doses of police procedural in the Rebus series. And John Rebus is a unique character who's won millions of fans. Rankin's' Edinburgh isn't always a very nice place, but through the series, you really get the feeling that Rankin's Edinburgh is, well, alive.

  9. This one sounds good - fortunately, as it is already on my shelf. So I don´t even have to break any of my self-imposed laws and rules to get it ;)

  10. Dorte - LOL! I know exactly what you mean about being able to read something without breaking the "TBR" rule. I haven't been so lucky with some of the excellent recommendations I've gotten so far this year....*sigh*

  11. This is one book I had wondered about. I have a copy but haven't, I'm sorry to say, even thumbed through it. After reading your wonderful post I will move it from the boxed up stack to my 'need to read' stack. Sounds like there are some interesting elements at work here.

    I am so looking forward to your next spotlight. 'The Cat' series is one of my favorites, especially the audio versions.

    Thoughts in Progress

  12. Mason - I know what you mean about books one means to read but hasn't yet done. I have a stack of those, too. There really are some interesting elements in Exit Music, and I think you'll like it. Of course, though, I like the series, so I'm biased...

    And I'm looking forward the next spotlight, too. The Cat Who... was the first cosy series I read...

  13. Great review, Margot. I was a little disappointed in the Rebus books by the end. He had made Siobhan Clarke a more interesting character but she was fairly underdeveloped. Maybe she will return even if Rebus (for TV contractural reasons I gather) does not.

    Another detective who "aged too quickly" is Harry Bosch. Michael Connelly has talked about how he realised Harry would be up for retirement from the LAPD (compulsory at some defined age), so he had to come up with some ways to keep up future books. He played with introducing new characters (eg The Poet and Blood Music - a reporter and a FBI agent, respectively), and later Mickey Haller the Lincoln Lawyer, but now seems to have settled on a few regular "outside LAPD" characters - I think Harry will join up with them post-retirement to form some kind of PI agency, either loosely or formally. (ie with Jack McEvoy, Rachel Walling and Mickey Haller continuing to feature). Also, Harry is in an interesting place with his personal life involving his young daughter, which provides for potential plots.....

  14. Maxine - Thank you :-). And I agree that more could have possibly been done with Siobhan Clarke's character. It would be interesting to see if Ranking does more with her in a new series or something. I'd like to see it.

    And I couldn't agree more about Harry Bosch. In fact, Connelly is said to have regretted having Bosch age in real time, although he made the conscious decision to do that. That's meant he's had to, as you say, work in some new characters like McEvoy, Walling and now Haller. I think that's an interesting approach, actually, to dealing with an aging character. It lets the author work in new kinds of plots. I actually kind of think you're right, and Bosch will be a part of some sort of PI agency. It just simply makes sense given his background, his personal life and so on. I'm eager to see what happens....