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Onyx reviews: The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin

In America, the division that investigates possible police wrongdoing is called Internal Affairs or IAB. In Scotland, they're The Complaints (formally, the Office of Complaints and Conduct), which was also the title of Ian Rankin's first novel featuring Malcolm Fox. Though Fox and Rankin's previous protagonist, Inspector Rebus, both work out of Lothian and Borders, there are significant differences between the two men. Fox doesn't drink (any more). He has family members within his orbit, though he doesn't get on very well with them. His accommoda­tions and his taste in music and food are different. Rebus probably wouldn't have approved of Fox's professional specialty. 

Still, it can sometimes be a struggle to keep Rebus at bay when reading this new series. Fox is every bit as stubborn and obsessed as Rebus was, and regularly finds himself in hot water because he has little regard for the chain of command. Like Rebus, he tends to be a lone wolf, even though he is part of a team. 

In The Impossible Dead, Fox and his two subordinates are sent to Kirkcaldy, Fife to question three officers who provided testimony on behalf of their colleague,  Detective Constable Paul Carter, who was convicted of criminal misconduct after he propositioned and coerced several women while on the job. Fox's group's task is to determine if there was a concerted effort among his colleagues to cover up his misdoings.

As with their American counterparts, the Complaints are not popular among regular police officers. Fox and his team aren't greeted warmly in Kirkcaldy. The people they want to interview are never available. One comes down with a convenient flu. The supervisor is always away from the office attending meetings. It's slow, frustrating work, but they muddle on. The only friendly face is the local member of the Complaints, Evelyn Mills, a married woman with whom Fox once had a one-night stand and who intimates that she might be open to more of the same. Even one of the women who testified against Carter is uncooperative, accusing Fox and his group of badgering her.

One interesting aspect of the case is the fact that the person who reported and provided evidence against DC Carter is his uncle Alan, a retired cop. Still, it isn't Fox's mandate to investigate DC Carter. That case has been settled. He and his group are only there to determine whether corruption exists among the Fife constabulary. However, when Alan Carter is found dead shortly after Fox visits him, the case shifts gears. DC Carter becomes the prime suspect after the staged suicide turns out to be a murder. Fox manages to convince his supervisors to let him continue the investigation, though, like Rebus, at a certain point he will inevitably be benched for straying too far afield.

Sitting on the bench affords Fox the latitude to investigate with impunity. What seemed at first to be a routine case pulls him in unexpected directions when he finds ties to the death of a lawyer named Francis Vernal, killed in a suspicious car accident twenty-five years ago. Vernal's widow wants her husband's death, which was poorly investigated at the time, resolved before she dies. Vernal was involved with dangerous radical nationalist organizations and she had hired Alan Carter to look into the circumstances surrounding his death. It looks to Fox like someone wanted—and still wants—something covered up and he wonders what became of the other members of that movement. Might some have moved into prominent positions in society and want that part of their past to remain secret? His nosing around also puts him at odds with MI5, the British intelligence service. 

A subplot involves suspicions that a contemporary terrorist group may be planning a bomb attack. The fact that one of their dry runs took place at Lockerbie has everyone on edge. Another storyline concerns Fox's father, who is in an assisted living home suffering from bouts of dementia. Fox pays the bills but his sister Jude, with whom he's always had a strained relationship, argues that that doesn't excuse him from visiting his father more often. Small wonder he doesn't, given the way his father repeatedly says that what Fox is doing isn't "real police work." During one visit, though, he discovers a photo of his cousin with Vernal, which gives his investigation a more personal angle.

It's a complicated plot, and involves a time in Scotland's national history that probably resonates with locals but may be unfamiliar to other readers. Rankin gives Fox an astonishing amount of latitude to pursue his inquiry, perhaps more than one could reasonably expect, and some matters of hidden identities push at the borders of credibility. Still, Rankin is a master at exploring the darker side of the Scottish landscape and Malcolm Fox is finding his legs as Rebus's replacement.

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