Rankin, Ian. The Falls.

NY: St. Martin, 2001

Rankin’s fans, of whom there are many, have gotten to know DI John Rebus of the Edinburgh CID quite well over the years. He’s a talented detective, and his superiors know it, but he’s also a determined non-team-player, and they know that, too. Often, he’s a loner, unwilling to share evidence or ideas, but other times, with colleagues whom he likes and trusts (not many of those), he’ll open up. DC Siobhan Clarke has even become something like his apprentice; she’s university-educated and in most ways follows the rules — but even though “she wasn’t a born outsider in the way she sensed John Rebus was, she’d learned that she liked it on his side of the fence.”

This installment of the series is notable, in fact, for providing much more detailed portraits of a number of Rebus’s colleagues and for doing it from a number of different narrative POVs.

We start out in the thick of things, with the disappearance of twenty-year-old student Philippa Balfour, daughter of wealth, whose banker father has made sure the entire police force is staying up late to find her. Did she run off? (Doesn’t seem likely.) Was she kidnapped? (No ransom demands.) Will she even be found alive? (Rebus doesn’t think so, frankly.) His first focus is on “Flip’s” boyfriend, David Costello, a medical student, and also from a privileged background. But David seems as torn up as her family.

As the case moves forward, or tries to, Flip’s computer reveals that she has apparently been playing a sort of game online, trying to solve puzzles and riddles posed by an unknown figure calling himself the “Quizmaster.” That side of things becomes Siobhan’s personal challenge, in which she is aided — for awhile — by her colleague, Grant Hood, whom we’ve also met before. He’s very bright, a rule-follower, and has his own personal problems and ambitions.

Also involved is Donald Devlin, an elderly retired pathologist, who worms his way into the investigation as a civilian expert. And who gives every woman with whom he comes into contact the creeps. And finally there’s Dr. Jean Burchill, curator at the Museum of Scotland, one of whose particular interests is the “Arthur’s Seat coffins” — a collection of foot-long, handmade wooden coffins discovered in a recess on the mount in the middle of Edinburgh back in the 1830s and having some connection to the case of Burke and Hare — the would-be “Resurrectionists” who supplied bodies to the medical school, but who decided murder was simpler than digging up recent graves. Much of this is genuine Edinburgh local history and it adds a great deal of depth to the plot. But Jean and Rebus hit it off very nicely, so there’s another complication in his life, along with the fact that he’s trying to decide whether to sell the too-large flat where he has lived for thirty years.

But there’s another thread in the story having to do with the place of women in the modern police force. Chief Superintendent “Farmer” Watson, to whom Rebus has long been a heavy burden, has finally retired, to be replaced by DCI Gill Templar, with whom Rebus had a brief romantic fling years ago. Gill is tenacious, having steadily fought her way up the ranks in the teeth of usually unspoken male bias, but the struggle has had its effect on her own personality and Rebus, watching her trying to make the new job her own in the glare of a very public case, wonders if she’ll manage it. And DS Ellen Wylie, another ambitious young officer, wants Gill’s old job as press liaison, but maybe she wants it too much.

But that’s only the lightest once-over of this extremely well-developed book. There are a dozen other story lines and supporting sub-plots, each of which could be the basis of its own book. And obviously, for full appreciation of all that’s happening, you really need to have read all the previous installments in the series. Otherwise, you’re going to miss a lot. The pace is rather slow and methodical, like most real police work, with dead ends and theories that don’t work out and much head-scratching over what might or might not be clues. But the process is absorbing from first page to last.

Rankin makes sure we see Rebus as the model of the cynical copper: “Is he still a suspect?” “You know what it’s like with police work, Professor. The world’s guilty until proven otherwise.” “I thought it was the other way round: innocent until proven guilty.” “I think you’re confusing us with lawyers, sir.”

The author, through his detective, also makes some very shrewd observations about the nature of people. “Rebus had accepted a black coffee from David Costello. Middle of the night, but Costello hadn’t been asleep. He’d made an off-license run at some point; the bag was lying on the floor, the half-bottle of Bell’s sitting not far from it, cap missing but only a couple of decent measures down. Not a drinker then, Rebus surmised. It was a non-drinker’s idea of how you handled a crisis — you drank whiskey, but had to buy some first and no point lashing out on a whole bottle. A couple of drinks would do you.” That’s lovely stuff.

Published in: on 4 May 2014 at 4:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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