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Onyx reviews: Exit Music by Ian Rankin

Regular readers of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels have long known that this day was coming, but like just about every other landmark event in life, Rebus's retirement seemed like it was would never actually get here. But it has.

When the book opens, Rebus has just over a week left in the only job he's ever known. To prepare for the big day—after issuing a strict embargo against embarrassing farewell fetes—he's been taking his protégé Siobhan Clark through the cold case files, the little bits of unfinished business he's bequeathing to her. As niggling as these unresolved cases are, there's a much larger piece of unfinished business: Big Ger Cafferty, the "reformed" crime lord who is behind just about every illegal deal and shady transaction in Edinburgh. Rebus hates it that he can't end his career on a high note by bringing Cafferty down. Even worse, when he discovers that Cafferty is under investigation and the cops might actually have a solid case, he resents the fact that he might not be the one to land him.

Rebus's final case involves the murder of a Russian poet, a dissident expatriate who is persona non grata in his homeland. With the notoriety surrounding the (real-life) poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian embassy is sensitive to the possibility that this killing might reflect poorly on nationals living in Scotland—especially since a group of rich Russian businessmen is currently visiting the city in hopes of finalizing some critical real estate investments.

The brutal killing started in a parking garage and ended in a poorly lit, notoriously dangerous street. Three people happen upon the scene shortly after the attack—a young woman and a couple on their way home from rehearsals for a Christmas pageant. None of them seem to have any connection to the crime, but the more Rebus and Siobhan investigate, the more it seems like there's a conspiracy afoot. Every lead takes them across the path of either a politician or a banker, or someone who knows a politician or a banker.

Edinburgh seems like a very small city—at least the dark side Rebus frequents. Making it seem even smaller is the proliferation of CCTV cameras that provide video coverage of most of the city, except where it is most needed—inside the parking garage where the crime took place. There's a Big Brother—the reality TV show, not the 1984 allusion—aspect to the situation that doesn't escape Rebus's notice.

The politicians belong to the Scottish National Party (SNP), an organization that hopes that Scotland will one day regain its independence from England. The First Albannach Bank is one of the biggest employers and most profitable companies in Scotland, a valuable asset to a newly established nation. Certain factions of the populace think independence might happen as soon as the next national election. One character muses that the reason Braveheart was such a popular movie is because the Scots don't often get to feel good about themselves.

Because the case looks like it will outlive Rebus's tenure with the police force, Siobhan is given the lead, which means Rebus is supposed to follow her directives. As if. Even when Rebus is suspended—an obligatory event on every case—he still runs the show vicariously, to the extent that he listens in on interrogations via Siobhan's open cell phone and weighs in on his opinion about her handling of each situation.

One of Siobhan's first and most controversial actions in the case is to import an ambitious uniformed officer to give him a taste of life in the CID. The young man, Goodyear, has a history with Rebus, of sorts. Rebus put his grandfather behind bars years earlier and the man died shortly after he was imprisoned. They dance around each other like participants in a knife fight, each eyeing the other with suspicion. Goodyear is religious, which puts him at odds with Rebus and Siobhan on a personal level.

Rebus is never satisfied with the easy solutions to any question and he never allows for the possibility that he might be wrong. That's because he so seldom is, at least not about the important matters. He may be boorish, cheap and rude, but he has a depth of experience and a level of intuition that allows him to fumble from one clue to the next and put it all together—even when he starts out on the wrong trail.

Rebus is taking his imminent retirement in stride. He knows he'll never move away from Edinburgh, but he contemplates giving up his apartment for something a little more rural. Rankin drops a mild hint at a backdoor way that Rebus can continue to do what he loves the most, but it's Siobhan who will have to carry the torch officially. She's well equipped to fill Rebus's shoes. Perhaps too well; she has acquired her boss's best investigative skills and his worst personal traits. Before too long, one assumes that it will be her sitting out lengthy suspensions because she couldn't resist getting up the nose of her superiors.

As for tying things up in a neat bow, that doesn't happen. Rankin doesn't traipse in all the ghosts from Rebus's past for a curtain call, at least in part because there aren't many people from his past who care what happens to Rebus. Exit Music doesn't have the feeling of a finale. In fact, it's probably the Rankin novel with the least degree of resolution. Rankin came up with an intriguing spin to the Rankin-Rebus conundrum, one that upends their relationship. It's a masterful development, one that could only spring from the mind of an author who has made millions of fans grow to love a crotchety old man who drinks too much, smokes too much, cares too much about justice—and little more—and one who needs precious little from the rest of the human race.

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