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Onyx reviews: Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 12/11/2016

Some fictional characters reappear year in and year out without acquiring so much as a wrinkle or a single gray hair. Other writers have elected to allow their protagonists to age in real time, which eventually puts them up against two great hurdles: mandatory retirement and mortality.

Ian Rankin's Inspector John Rebus falls into this latter character. Rankin sticks strictly to the laws of the land that say that Rebus has to be put out to pasture, no exceptions allowed. Unlike Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, Rebus hasn't put up a shingle and hired himself out as a private detective. For the most part he's content to walk his newly acquired dog and develop a relationship with a police pathologist.

That's not to say Rebus has lost all interest in solving crimes, or that he's lost any of the single-minded nature that got him into trouble with his superiors while he was on the job. Even something as innocent as a bit of local trivia can put him on the track of a killer. He mentions an unsolved murder of socialite Maria Turquand that took place decades ago in the Caledonian Hotel, where he's having dinner with his girlfriend, and just like that his curiosity is piqued. He convinces his former colleague, Siobhan Clarke, to let him borrow the case files and sets about rummaging in the past.

The case involves Bruce Collier, a former rock star, and his entourage, who were in the hotel at the time of the murder. The victim was a serial philanderer, so she has left many men in the dust as she moved from one to the next. Collier is living in Edinburgh once again, not far from the scene of the crime, which increases Rebus's interest in the old case. However, it appears that someone wants the old murder to remain unsolved. Shortly after Rebus meets with another former cop who worked the cold case eight years ago, the man turns up dead.

In parallel, Matthew Fox has been seconded back to Edinburgh from Gartcosh, the headquarters for the new national Scottish police force, to liaise with the locals about an incident that might connect to a wider investigation. Darryl Christie, the heir-apparent to the criminal enterprise once led by Big Ger Cafferty, is badly beaten outside his home, and there have been other incidents of mischief that indicate someone has it in for him. But who? And why? And is there a connection to the Turquand case?

Anything that involves Cafferty is also of interest to Rebus. The two have a long history as adversaries with begrudging respect for each other, and Cafferty often refuses to talk to anyone official unless Rebus is involved. This gives the retired officer all the excuse he needs to insinuate himself into any number of police interviews and other aspects of investigations that should by all rights be off limits to him.

In addition to his burgeoning relationship and the fact that he now owns a dog, there's a lot going on in Rebus's private life. A life-long smoker, he is now forced to confront some of the long-term effects of that vice. His health is in tatters and his mood is no better for having to give up cigarettes and alcohol. He also has a shadow on his lung that requires a biopsy. In typical Rebus fashion, he deflects the concern by giving the defect a pet name.

Rebus is no longer the central character in the series. DI Clarke and DI Fox both get plenty of screen time, although they aren't nearly as colorful or fascinating as the retired officer. Various miscreants also get their time on the stage, demonstrating Rankin's thesis that despite its size, Edinburgh is a small place where almost everyone knows everyone else and few incidents in the criminal underworld are unrelated.

The plot has many, many twists and turns, as crimes are linked, unlinked and relinked. Witnesses go missing, as does a wealthy financier at the center of a task force inquiry. Anyone who dares go against the criminals operating only a few layers below the high-level crooks in the financial district receives rough justice. 

Rebus has friends in high and low places, allowing him to orchestrate it all, while the official investigation spins its wheels and gets bogged down in bureaucracy and all those pesky rules that Rebus long ago learned to ignore. By the end, it's clear that the clock hasn't quite run out on the old dog yet, and his nemesis has a new lease on life as well, allowing for at least one more showdown between the duo.

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