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Onyx reviews: A Question of Blood by Ian Rankin

Inspector Rebus is among the grittiest, edgiest protagonists in modern crime fiction. When he's not under suspension for some offence—real or perceived—he's under the watchful eye of his superiors for his next misstep. He lives alone, having driven off practically anyone who has ever loved him, and his surrogate family consists of those police office colleagues that he deems worthy of his attention.

Chief among these is Siobhan Clarke, a strong woman in her own right and capable of putting up with Rebus' guff and giving as good as it gets when they spar verbally. However, Clarke picked up a stalker recently and when the man dies in a house fire of suspicious origins and Rebus turns up in the hospital the next day with burnt hands, Clarke can't help but wonder if Rebus has overstepped his bounds in protecting her from the miscreant.

Rebus is able to dodge scrutiny for a few days after he gets out of the hospital by getting picked up to assist a nearby precinct with a multiple murder-suicide case. A former SAS (special ops) Army soldier showed up at a high school and when the shooting was over two students were dead, a third was wounded and the ex-soldier dead at his own hand.

For most police officers, this would have been an open-and-shut case. The man had gone off the deep end. What more needed to be known? For Rebus, though, ex-Army himself and a failed SAS candidate, the question of why nags at him. What triggered the meltdown of a man who had been living a fairly quiet life running a water-ski operation in the Edinburgh suburbs.

Complicating matters is the fact that the surviving student is the son of Jack Bell, a local politician who recently had an embarrassing run in with the police while negotiating terms with a prostitute. Rebus, who hates that Bell is trying to use the publicity to rehabilitate his reputation, spares the man no slack, further ruffling the feathers of his superiors, who are less inclined to stir up the political pot.

For all its size, Edinburgh is a small city in a country where guns are rare and even the police department is still unarmed except for a special weapons division. Threads from the two cases—Clarke's stalker and the school shooting - begin to intertwine.

Rebus is his inimitable self, playing his cards close to his vest as he begins to see the bigger picture and understands why two Army investigators have involved themselves in the school shooting case. Under a veil of suspicion from his superiors over the fatal fire—stirred further by an eager tabloid journalist—Rebus continues to play his usual role of rogue cop for whom the ends always justify the means regardless of how many official toes he steps on along the way.

Rankin gives his supporting cast increasingly bigger parts in this continuing series, a wise choice considering that Rebus is approaching retirement age and will have to hand the torch off to someone else, probably Siobhan Clarke, who lives as solitary a life as her superior officer does.

Rankin's black sense of humor and rock sensibility permeates his protagonist's world view. Though decades separate them, Rebus immediately bonds with a teenage Goth girl who is fascinated by death and runs a webcam from her bedroom. The people he doesn't connect with are his family—one of the victims of the school shooting was his cousin. Reunited with the boy's father, Rebus discovers that some of his fond recollections of youth are tainted by the selfishness and insecurity of teenage angst.

A Question of Blood is another strong entry in one of the most reliable crime series coming out of the UK.

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