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Rankin, Ian - 'Exit Music'
Hardback: 400 pages (Sep. 2007) Publisher: Orion ISBN: 0752868608

Let's get one thing out of the way: I do not believe for one second that this is the last Rebus novel. I never believed it would be, and my mind isn't changed after finishing it. I would bet my very last penny that in a few years we'll see Rebus again, in some fictional form or another (cold cases, muscling in on Siobhan, whatever). Rankin quite clearly hasn't finished with this character, and he clearly hasn't finished with the city either.

Let's not re-hash too many plot details: suffice to say that a Russian poet living in Edinburgh is found rather nastily dead in a street you "wouldn't want to walk down alone at night" (Rankin's words). Cue some Russian businessmen visiting the city looking for investment opportunities, political machinations concerning independence, the mysterious economy-of-truth being exemplified by the girl who found the body, and the large, looming figure of Morris Gerald Cafferty, drinking quietly in the very hotel bar that the poet had just left…

It would be difficult to understate Rankin's prominent place in the landscape of world crime-fiction. (Or: British crime-fiction, Scottish crime-fiction, Scottish fiction, etc etc.) In the 20 years and 17 books over which we have shadowed Rebus' career in the police, Rankin has evolved from a competent penner of gritty, underdeveloped mysteries (HIDE & SEEK, STRIP JACK), into a writer of immensely high calibre, into a writer able to weave together novels which are simultaneously thick with plot and character, laced with subtle themes, and have as their backbone a compelling social interrogation, a tussle between enquiry into and straight, hard portraiture of, a complex city. Individually, the novels present a social snapshot, taken together, they catalogue a changing Edinburgh. Joan Smith once said of Ruth Rendell that anyone wishing to understand the changes in English society would do well to read her novels, and the same is true of Rankin re: Edinburgh. They are almost a perfect example of the argument for crime fiction as literature via social examination (if such an argument needed to be made: I don't think it does. Crime fiction is "literature" for many reasons, in my book.) Not only that, but in terms of crime fiction, Rankin seems to me the modern British standard-bearer (forgetting the Americans who did it decades before) for the alcoholic troubled cop, the loner with an authority problem we have seen so many times since. There are many other examples, but (apart from those two conspicuous Scandinavians Wallander and Hole), Rebus remains firmly the most impressive. He is the most rounded, the most realistic. The hardest to like but the one I ultimately find the most attractive. Most of all I admire his realistic contradictions, they are the things which can seem slapdash, but make us the tangled mental bundles we are. His development as a character, too, has been excellent. An accretion of changes, a slow, imperceptible shift in attitude and behaviours are characteristic of his growth. That development is bathed in a bitter light come Rebus' final, almost desperate sentences on EXIT MUSIC's final page.

As an individual novel in the series, EXIT MUSIC is not quite among Rankin's grandest achievements (DEAD SOULS or A QUESTION OF BLOOD, for example), but it's certainly very good, and a very fine novel to end the series on. It's also much better than the too-mired-in-politics NAMING OF THE DEAD, which I found rather a disappointment. Here, Rankin keeps a very close eye on the surrounding politics (the question of Scottish independence, exploiting it, the Russian's interest in using it, etc) but they don't overshadow the actual story. He also doesn't forget to provide us with an excellent mystery, either, and while the final solution may seem a little out of left field, it nonetheless satisfies, and Rankin reminds us that the bottom line requirement of his job is the creation of solvable detective puzzles.

EXIT MUSIC is written brilliantly, possibly with more subtlety and nuance in the writing than ever before. It may be the ending of a chapter in Rebus' career, but it also shows that Rankin's is in no way over. Hopefully, there is much more great work to come, Rebus or not.

Fiona Walker, England
November 2007

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 13/09/2009 09:29