The Impossible Dead
The literary thriller may sound like an oxymoron, but 51-year-old Scottish author Ian Rankin appears to have mastered the genre. His novels are global bestsellers. That does mean that when he’s not actually writing and getting to spend time at his local pub in Edinburgh, he’s trotting the globe promoting his latest novel.
For instance now, as he does the publicity tour for The Impossible Dead, and finds himself in a hotel lounge in downtown Toronto, in the city for its premiere literary fest, the International Festival of Authors.
Counterpointing his hard-edged crime novels, he is remarkably soft-spoken, the Scottish brogue very evident. That he is unassuming may explain encounters like when a fan visited that Edinburgh pub refused to accept Rankin was the author and only just acknowledged his passport as proof of identity.
His latest offering is the second novel featuring Detective Inspector Malcolm Fox, of The Complaints, the unit that investigates charges against other cops. While his publishers may have blanched when Rankin retired his principal protagonist Detective Inspector John Rebus in 2007 after 20 years spanning 17 novels, Fox’s debut in 2009 allayed those apprehensions. Now, Fox is back. Enjoy that while it lasts.
Rankin is finicky about his fictional characters inhabiting a real world. The people who populate his books age in real time. Like Rebus, who was retired in the 2007 novel, Exit Music, since he had reached the actual age of retirement for Scottish police, 60.
Or like Fox, who may not return for too many installments after this sophomore venture.
In Toronto, Rankin explained: “I don’t think he’ll be around for as long as Rebus because of the nature of the job he does. Internal Affairs is only something you go into for four or five years and then you go back to being a normal police officer again.”
Which is a pity since Rankin’s latest work adds to Fox’s biography. Fox, of course, is a cop who investigates other cops who’ve wandered off the straight and narrow. In The Impossible Dead, sexual harassment is the premise, but really an excuse for taking Fox into the fiery territory of terrorism. The novel has a contemporary incident on the margins, but has Fox getting into the terrain of terrorism in Scotland in the 1980s, somewhat quaint compared to the modern phenomenon. But, yes, there were Scottish terrorists, of a sort, and Fox veers into examining unconnected dots related to the supposed suicide of an ultranationalist, Francis Vernal, in the mid-1980s, thawing the coldest of cases.
Coincidentally, during his 2010 visit to India, Rankin got acquainted with the 26/11 landscape. As he said, “In Mumbai, they were keen to show around the places where the terrorist acts had taken place. That maybe not the kind of tour most tourists get of Mumbai, but it was interesting to me.”
The question, certainly, is whether Rebus will return. “He didn’t want to retire,” Rankin said. And Rebus may have literally been thrown a lifeline, as the author explained, “Now they’ve changed the retirement age for cops in Scotland, so he can come back again.” That age limit has been upped to 65. Of course, there are other alternatives too. As Rankin said, “Even if he has retired, he can work as a civilian for the police, working on cold cases for example.” Or he could get Fox to investigate Rebus. Or, maybe, elevate Rebus’ associate Siobhan Clarke to headline a novel, with Rebus, roles reversed, as sidekick. Plenty of possibilities.
Fox, though, is a suitable substitute. And the Fox books, also set in and around Edinburgh, a character in itself, have the same clarity of craftsmanship that defined the Rebuses. But Rankin makes it clear that Fox isn’t anything like Rebus: “He’s such a different personality from Rebus that it’s nice to be inside someone’s head who isn’t quite as driven, isn’t quite as dangerous, isn’t quite as unstable as Rebus.”
Another change is the absence of music, unless you count a throwaway reference to Lady Gaga towards the latter parts of The Impossible Dead. In the Rebus books, you could almost hear the music in the background. “He [Fox] couldn’t be into music because I want to make sure nobody thought he was just Rebus with a different name. So I decided he couldn’t like music, which is a shame,” Rankin said.
Even if the soundtrack’s missing, The Impossible Dead should get Fox on the hit list of sleuths in literature.