Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
Although this novel opens with Rebus engaged in relatively mundane stuff: trying to persuade his suspect to reveal the grave of his victim’s body, investigating a car smash and switched drivers, the pages exude menace. Catching breath one turns to the cop shop and the dismal news that the Solicitor General is to re-open a cold case.
Thirty years ago an informer charged with murder walked free as a result of police incompetence or even collusion. The detectives involved were a group styling themselves “saints” who had sworn an oath of loyalty on a shadow bible. Rebus was a newcomer to the group at the time but thirty years later he is the only member left serving so he is the one targeted by the team investigating the cold case. Now he finds himself with a foot in both camps: detailed to discover what hold if any the freed informer had over the detectives while the surviving saints demand he adheres to the oath of loyalty. Dodging and weaving he comes close to the truth and murder results.
That’s the plot: an honourable man (of a sort) who by his own actions precipitates more crime which in turn directs him towards his goal. Echoes of Marlowe: an Edinburgh passion play in lieu of Bay City but this flawed hero is ultimately ruthless as demonstrated by a puzzling prologue and, after four hundred pages, a shocking epilogue.
If it reads like a man’s book, Rankin does women too. Rebus’ business partner is a clever fox, the Solicitor General a credible bitch, but Maggie, the dying cop’s wife who swore no oath of loyalty, is a revelation.
If you want fine literature go elsewhere. If you want an Edinburgh stripped of its onion skins: its cops and villains, high and low life, absorbing fiction, Rankin heads the list. His dialogue is spare, harsh, real; narrative follows suit and the action gallops.