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Onyx reviews: The Complaints by Ian Rankin

Malcolm Fox is most emphatically not Inspector John Rebus. The differences between Ian Rankin's new protagonist and his most famous recurring character are readily tabulated. Rebus was a heavy drinker—Fox is a recovering alcoholic who favors tomato or cranberry juice. Rebus listened to rock music, especially the Rolling Stones—Fox, when he listens to music at all, opts for classical, though he'd be hard pressed to identify the composer of any particular piece. He often listens to a radio station that broadcasts birdsongs instead.

Fox is younger than Rebus, though no luckier at love. He is divorced but closer to his immediate family than Rebus was. His sister Jude lives with an abusive Englishman, and his father Mitch resides in private care, the fees for which eat into Fox's take-home pay. Fox is the glue that holds the family together, regularly visiting his father and making excuses for Jude, who doesn't.

The most significant difference, though, is in their jobs. Rebus worked the streets of Edinburgh solving murders, whereas Fox works for the Professional Standards Unit of the Complaints and Conduct division, the UK analog of Internal Affairs. Cops who investigate other cops accused of brutality, corruption and violations of their professional code of conduct. Though they provide a critical service within the department, the officers who work for Complaints are not popular with their colleagues, to say the least.

And yet for all these differences it is a struggle to shake the ghost of Rebus. Both men are loners and stubbornly ignore their supervisors to investigate cases outside of their purview. They are single-minded in their pursuits, regardless of the implications for others around them. Their individual moral compasses trump social standards.

The Complaints have just finished a lengthy investigation into Glen Heaton, a corrupt officer known for cutting corners. His fellow officers argue that his actions are justified because he gets criminals off the street, but Heaton crosses lines, divulging information to criminals. The case is heading toward the prosecutor's office. Though its solid, it's not quite a done deal.

With his plate newly clean, Fox is asked to help the Chop Shop (CEOP; Child Exploitation and Online Protection) investigate DS Jamie Breck, a young officer with a promising future before these allegations. Breck's credit card was used to purchase a membership to an internet site frequented by pedophiles that's run by a bent cop in Australia. It's a routine investigation—surreptitiously digging into another officer's private affairs is part and parcel of the responsibilities of the Complaints. Fox usually ends up knowing more about his subjects than their spouses.

However, the situation is complicated when Jude's partner, Vince Faulkner, is beaten to death a few days after he breaks her arm. Fox and his colleagues had been musing about payback, so it's natural that they're barred from the case. However, as luck would have it, the case falls to DS Breck. The two men end up investigating each other.

The plot of The Complaints is convoluted, combining elements of the current credit crunch with the resultant collapse of the housing market. The headline story in Edinburgh newspapers is the disappearance of a crooked real estate developer from his yacht, presumably a suicide in response to his failing business. Keeping straight the way it all ties together might require a checklist and a roadmap. The conclusion is satisfying, in large part because the route—the developing friendship between the two cops and the insight into their respective characters—is more important than the destination.

Fox's division does not play a large role in the novel. Perhaps if Rankin brings his new protagonist back in the future, readers will gain more insight into the delicate business of investigating corruption in the police department. For now, the economic crisis will have to do.


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