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Onyx reviews: Fleshmarket Close by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin is the UK's best-selling crime writer, and his readership is quickly growing on this side of the Atlantic. His protagonist is Inspector John Rebus, a gruff, heavy-drinking lone wolf police inspector, made from the same mold as many other hard-boiled detectives. Through Rebus, Rankin delves beneath his native Edinburgh's fašade to lay bare a side of the city not many tourists see.

Rebus will soon face mandatory retirement. Despite an excellent track record, he's never been a darling of his superiors. Now they're openly encouraging him to consider retiring early. In his new headquarters, he is being treated as "surplus to requirements." He has no desk and is forced to cadge time on momentarily idle computers.

Because no one cares what he is up to these days-so long as he doesn't cause trouble-Rebus tags along on a murder call at Knoxland, a housing project that has been adopted by immigrants with dubious documentation. Is the man-a former Kurdish journalist-dead because he witnessed something he shouldn't have seen, or simply because he encountered one of Knoxland's numerous violent offenders?

Meanwhile, Siobhan Clarke has loaned herself out to the Banehall police to assist in the search for a missing teenage girl. Siobhan knows the girl and her family-the elder daughter was raped several years earlier and committed suicide in the aftermath. The rapist is now out of prison and attempting to reintegrate himself into society, much to the community's distress. Her case converges with Rebus' in a surprising way via a Glasgow crime lord with ties to slave labor who has recently taken up residence in Edinburgh.

Siobhan, though younger than her mentor, has acquired many of Rebus' less admirable traits. Rebus subscribes to a holistic approach to detecting, being rude to everyone until he ruffles someone's feathers. Siobhan is more diplomatic, but is as prone as Rebus to going it alone and taking liberties with established procedure. The two understand each other well, and at times seem on the verge of becoming real friends-or more-but their personalities preclude intimacy on any level.

Rankin's books aren't usually issue-driven, but in Fleshmarket Close he explores the immigration situation and race relations in Scotland. He portrays almost Dickensian treatment of immigrants who are being processed out of the country. Rebus is the main voice on the subject, and his opinion is quite clear. The detention center where refugees are confined is little better than an internment camp, and the plight of one family tweaks Rebus' emotions to the point where he is seen delivering toys to young children.

No one would ever mistake Rebus for Santa Claus, but the cantankerous inspector has definitely softened in recent books. He's still as sharp as a razor blade when it comes to solving crimes, but he is less abrasive (to the right people). Even whiskey that makes a person wince from its bite can mellow with age.

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