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Onyx reviews: Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 12/04/2015

You can't teach old dogs new tricks, especially when those dogs are D.I. John Rebus (retired) or his nemesis Big Ger Cafferty, the gangster who's out of prison on compassionate release only to have his terminal cancer magically clear up.

When dogs get old, younger ones start sniffing around, sensing a vacancy in the alpha position. The Stark gang from Glasgow has arrived in Edinburgh, supposedly hunting for Hamish Wright and a cache of stolen money and drugs. Cafferty is concerned that they're actually casing the city to see if it's ripe for plucking. He's especially worried after someone shoots at him through the window of his house.

Big Ger's usually handles problems like this on his own. However, a shooting is serious business, involving the police. He'll only cooperate with one man, though—the cop who put him behind bars and would happily do so again. Rebus, retired but at loose ends, jumps at the chance to rejoin the fray as a consulting detective—the same title Sherlock Holmes used, he's pleased to announce. 

Big Ger wasn't the only target of the shooter, who has sent threatening messages and then followed up on those threats in at least two other cases. There's a serial killer at work, Rebus concludes, although no one else agrees at first. His unique position allows him to follow his nose unhindered. He and Cafferty are afraid that a gang war will break out in their streets, which is in nobody's best interests. Rebus has to consider the possibility that Cafferty is stoking these fires to improve his own fragile position in the city's power structure.

The Glaswegian mob has brought with them a contingent of Glasgow cops, who've installed themselves in the CID offices at St. Leonard's, much to the chagrin of the locals, including former Complaints cop DI Malcolm Fox, who is attached to the detail. Lately he's been feeling a little surplus to requirements, part of a department that has at least one DI too many. He's the fifth wheel on this new assignment, too, which allows him to strike out on his own to get to the bottom of what's really happening in Edinburgh.

The book's title comes from a song by The Associates. It was playing on a cassette tape in a car stereo during the novel's prologue, a scene crucial to the serial killer case, although its significance won't be revealed until late in the novel. A careful reading of the song's lyrics provides a clue, though. 

A sense of melancholy pervades the novel. Rebus thinks he and Cafferty are on their last legs, and their ways of doing things belong in the previous century. While pursuing leads in northern Scotland, he muses that he might never again take that journey, even though his semi-estranged daughter lies at the trip's farthest reaches. 

Hamish Wright is the book's McGuffin—everyone is looking for him, but he's more of a legend than a character. The book is about the tension between the old guard and the new in all walks of life, on both sides of the thin blue line. The theme of fathers and sons repeats: Fox's father is ill. The younger Stark is hoping to take over his father's criminal enterprise. Rebus and DI Fox have an awkward relationship, almost that of father and son. Fox is a by-the-numbers kind of man that makes him a hair less interesting than Rebus, the lone wolf whose bite and bark are equally bad. Fox and Rebus' former partner, DI Siobhan Clarke, have formed a close but platonic friendship that ruffles Rebus' fur, too.

There's even a literal dog in the book, though it's not an old one and it's not as symbolic as another writer might cause it to be. The stray terrier comes into play as an undercover dog late in the book, but Rankin avoids the temptation of making it into a heavy-handed metaphor. Whether he'll be Rebus' constant companion will have to wait for another book.

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