Black & Blue, by Ian Rankin
1996, 498 pp.
Although “tartan noir” is a genuine, codified genre in its own right, this book may perhaps be best categorized along with The Wire in a sort of “post-industrial sociological realist” vein of crime fiction. Since I still consider The Wire to be the finest work of fiction so far this century in any medium, this is high praise by association, and well warranted. Both David Simon’s work and Ian Rankin’s novels explore the violent intersection of individuals and institutions in the wake of rapid capitalist transformation of older societies. This interaction is mediated by various forces: the geography of a modern city, the effects of immigration and racial stratification in an urban setting, the role of controlled substances in mediated experience. It is something wholly apart from the existential themes of the classical noir, and something more prescient and clear-eyed than standard social criticism. I love this kind of stuff.
Ian Rankin boasts an enormous ouevre, startlingly varied an expansive for a relatively young man. I selected Black & Blue at random, but it appears to have been a serendipitous choice. My copy comes with a 10-year retrospective introduction by the author which helpfully explained that this, the 8th of currently 17 novels featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus, of the Edinburgh police, is a transitional and transformative book in the series. Evidently it was with this book that Rankin decided to branch out from pure police procedural into a wider interrogation of post-industrial society. Black & Blue won a number of awards and inspired a book-long critique of its themes.
The story is enormous convoluted. There are three general strands: the first has to do with the real-life “Bible John” murders, which took place in Scotland in the late 1960s. Rankin posits a follow-up copycat called “Johnny Bible” and introduces Bible John as a character, hunting the killer who has usurped his notoriety. So there’s a serial killer and a real-life serial killer hunting him. Very good. The second strand involves the mysterious death of an oil platform worker and expands out to include a crime family from Glasgow, a drug operation in Aberdeen, corruption of oil interests in the North Sea, and crooked cops. The third strand has to do with a former partner of Rebus’ who recently committed suicide, and who may or may not have framed a suspect named Spaven many years ago as part of the original Bible John case. Spaven became famous in jail and eventually killed himself, protesting his innocence all along. The young Rebus was involved in the cover-up to the possible framing and is now the target of an internal affairs probe and a television crime show. Needless to say, about 500 pages later all of these things turn out to be connected, and it is to Rankin’s credit that once all the pieces are in place, the whole plot does indeed make sense.
Rebus is a solid protagonist. He’s as maverick-y and tenacious as all fictional detectives are required to be, and is frequently persecuted by the police, which happily allows the reader to identify with him as an individual being persecuted by a giant, soulless, powerful institution. This is absolutely necessary in detective fiction. If the protagonist is going to be a cop instead of a private eye, he must be distanced from the police department, lest the reader realize that as a police detective, our hero is an appendage of a giant, powerful, soulless institution which exists to persecute individuals just like the reader. Anyway, Rebus has solid loner, maverick cop credentials. He also has an impressive drinking problem (at one point he has three Laphroaigs at a pub at 6 AM before going to work) and a dark past and a divorce and an estranged daughter. He carries the book well, with lots of stubbornness and wry quips.
As much as I enjoyed the novel and would recommend it and am looking forward to reading the other 16 Rebus books, it is not without problems. There are two major ones: the way Rebus quits drinking about halfway through, and the way the plot is resolved.
The first suffers from comparisons. One of my favorite detective series is by Lawrence Block, about an alcoholic New York detective named Matt Scudder. In that series as well, the middle book is pivotal and signals and expansion of scope into wider societal themes. It is also the point where Scudder quits drinking, but that process accounts for possibly half the book. Scudder manages to string together one or two sober days, sometimes almost a week, but is constantly aware of the struggle and constantly rationalizing himself into having another drink. The torment of the addiction is executed brilliantly, and indeed sticks in the reader’s mind long after the plot has dissipated. Further, I’ve now read several hundred pages of Infinite Jest, which is greatly concerned with addiction and features many very long monologues about AA meetings and the sensations of addiction. This is serious business, but Rebus quits almost casually. I found it simply impossible to believe that a bitter, lonely 55-year-old detective who has three single malts before work could give it up so quickly, particularly concerning the central role that pubs and whiskey play in the lives of people who are unfortunate enough to live on this stupid, rainy island. I just didn’t buy it, and it undermined the emotional gravitas of the Rebus character.
The second problem might have something to do with an American/Scottish cross-cultural difference. American detective novels end with cathartic gun battles. The last one I read featured an entire subplot which existed solely to provide a reason for a cathartic gun battle at the end. But while it is easy to believe that heavily armed, trigger-happy American cops do indeed have extensive gunfights with double-digit body counts, police officers in the UK don’t carry guns. There is one gun in all 500 pages of Black & Blue, and it’s used to hit somebody. The Bible John/Johnny Bible plot gets resolved offstage, the really sinister sadist gangster villain gets arrested by somebody else, and people who you want to go to jail do so. But the book ends less with a bang than a whisper, and frankly, despite enjoying the book very much, it left me a bit unfulfilled. It also left me curious to read other installments in the series, to see if either the drinking becomes more of an emotional arc, or if all the books end on a quiet minor key.