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Onyx reviews: The Falls by Ian Rankin

Once Inspector John Rebus tackles a problem, he keeps at it with stubborn determination. When a miniature coffin containing a doll turns up near the home of missing student Phillipa Balfour, he discovers that similar coffins have heralded the suspicious disappearances of four other people in the past three decades. He knows there's a connection, even though his colleagues and coworkers aren't convinced.

Miniature coffins are a part of Edinburgh history. The local museum features a display of several that were found nearly two hundred years earlier at a local landmark known as Arthur's Seat.

Philippa, the daughter of a wealthy banker, vanished one evening on her way to meet some friends. Shortly after her disappearance, Rebus' colleague, Siobhan Clarke, finds an e-mail message on Philippa's account from someone called Quizmaster. Clarke contacts Quizmaster, who was guiding Philippa through a sophisticated on-line adventure that may have led to her death. Quizmaster e-mails Clarke the same clues he or she sent the missing girl. Clarke participates in the puzzle, knowing that she may be playing into Quizmaster's hands.

Author Ian Rankin and his Inspector Rebus are not as well known in America as many other British writers and fictional detectives, but The Falls may change that. It is being launched as Rankin's breakout novel and the Scottish writer will be touring in America. His books deserve a wide audience. The Falls is more than a mystery; it is a character study. Rebus is a dark, brooding, heavy drinker who loves classic rock music. Divorced, living alone, he is in the process of selling his home even though he hasn't decided where he will move. He craves change and thinks a new flat is the answer to his malaise.

The Falls features numerous other intriguing continuing characters as well: Siobhan Clarke, the obsessed officer following in Rebus's renegade footsteps; Grant Hood, on the front line as liaison officer; Gill Templer, confronting this high-profile case during her first days as newly appointed Detective Chief Superintendent; and her predecessor, "Farmer" Watson, who is trying to adjust to a new life in mandatory retirement.

Edinburgh itself is an important character in Rankin's books. Rebus frequents dingy pubs where serious drinkers hang out. The mystery takes the investigating team across the city, giving the author the chance to discuss the seemingly quaint northern city, which has a seedy, dark side known best to the people who police her.

The suspects and other people encountered during the investigation are also well conceived, convincingly motivated and intriguing. Rankin skillfully handles an enormous cast of characters and an intricate plot. Some of the clues are red herrings and the investigators seem to be floundering until near the end when suddenly things begin to fall into place and the pace accelerates relentlessly. By this point Rebus is on disciplinary leave after he takes the blame for an embarrassing news leak. That doesn't stop him from pursuing the case, though. Clarke, Rebus and his new friend, museum curator Jean Burchill—also a friend of Gill Templer—each follow a different fiber of this complex tapestry. Clarke is closing in on the Quizmaster—or is it the other way around? And while Rebus is staunchly pursuing the connection with past disappearances, Burchill is on the trail of the historical link.

Philippa Balfour's plight leads readers through a blend of modern and historical Scotland, combining classic mystery and high-tech thriller with insightful character studies into the unique blend that James Ellroy calls "tartan noir."

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