My mystery book club met last night to discuss Ian Rankin’s novel The Falls, and it was very well received; some people had a quibble or two with this or that, but the consensus was that this book is one of the best we have read so far, in competition with Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key for the very best.
I had a great time reading the novel. I often find it to be the case that when I read good mysteries, the mystery itself isn’t the main pleasure. The novel did offer a very good story, but I liked the world Rankin has created and the characters who live in that world even more. It’s set in Edinburgh, and the city is like a character itself; it’s a gloomy, slightly depressed place that is haunted by history but is also in the midst of change that leaves the characters unsettled. The city’s history is rich, but that history is different for each character — it’s like every person is living in a slightly different place. While the curator and historian Jean sees ghosts of the city’s famous residents, the main character, Rebus, sees a more personal history — that of crimes committed and bodies found. Each person in the novel seems haunted by something; the more fortunate characters are haunted merely by the ghosts of past residents instead of by somebody or something more personally ominous.
Rebus is a great mystery-novel hero, or anti-hero, perhaps. In this novel he is getting on in age, seeing old friends retire and realizing that he is not far off from retirement himself. His demons are only hinted at in this novel (although those stories may be more fully developed in earlier books), but we learn about an ex-wife and a daughter who is out of the picture at the moment. And we learn a lot about his drinking. He cannot walk down a city street without thinking about the pubs he could walk into — and probably will walk into, soon enough. In one particularly low moment, he shows up at a suspect’s house drunk, and gets himself in some serious trouble at work.
Rebus is someone no one in the police force knows quite what to do with; he is an unreliable partner and a perpetual problem for his supervisors. He doesn’t care enough about the rules to bother following them, and although he does want to solve his cases, he is going to make sure he does it in his own way, on his own time. He isn’t even all that great at what he does, at least often he’s not; he’s more likely to stumble into discoveries rather than think his way towards them.
But all this doesn’t mean that he’s unlikeable — far from it. He’s the kind of person you like almost in spite of yourself. He inspires these same mixed feelings in his colleagues; one of the most important ones, Siobhan, struggles with the degree to which she is following in Rebus’s footsteps. She admires his independence, but at the same time sees that working like Rebus does is no way to advance in her job.
But does she want to advance in her job? The book is very much about office politics, as well as murders and personal demons; Rebus’s colleague are richly described, especially the tension they feel between their ambition and their awareness that career advancement comes with a cost. Success can mean separation from old friends and the pressure to become more careful, more polished, less open than the others.
I suspect that Rebus is even more fun to read about in series form rather than in an individual novel; book group members who had read more than one Rankin novel said that as you read more, Rebus’s world becomes even more richly described. It’s a good thing I have two more Rankin novels on hand, and that a local used bookstore owner has informed me they have plenty in stock. I may not get to more Rankin novels soon, but I will make sure to get back to them sooner or later.