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April 6, 2007 edition

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Tartan Noir

The Crime Scene

By OTTO PENZLER
April 4, 2007

A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T

Arguably the most successful and beloved Scottish writer since Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin has much to celebrate. He turns 47 later this month and, with the publication this week of "The Naming of the Dead" (Little, Brown,; 452 pages; $24.99), can view with pride his 20th novel in the superb series featuring John Rebus, who got his name from the picture puzzles that were once so popular.

It is difficult to describe the many points of significance and excellence in these books.

First, they are set in Edinburgh, which most Americans (me included) have generally regarded as a friendly, attractive, and benign city, offering lovely shops on Princes Street, a formidable and handsome castle right in the middle of everything, and a smiling, polite populace. The only truly terrifying thing about Edinburgh is the prospect of encountering haggis, the Scottish culinary blight consisting of sheep's "pluck" (heart, liver, and lungs) chopped with flavorings and boiled in the animal's stomach.

Then Mr. Rankin showed the dark, seedy, drug-infested, violent underside of a city that hadn't seemed to have one. The city itself plays a major role in the books, its personality and appearance as lovingly detailed as any character.

Second, there is the unprecedented success of the Rebus novels in the United Kingdon as they made it into "The Guinness World Records" when seven of his titles were on the best-seller list simultaneously. Surprisingly, despite a large number of devotees in America, they have not achieved similar heights over here.

Third is the Rebus character himself, one of the greatest of all contemporary literary figures. When we first meet him in "Knots and Crosses," the earliest Rebus novel, he is walking to the grave of his father, who died five years earlier. As "The Naming of the Dead" opens, he is at the funeral of his brother, with whom he had an uneasy relationship, just as he has with his entire family. Not close to his sister, he lives alone after a "busted" marriage.

Rebus is "a good detective," Mr. Rankin once remarked, "which makes him a bad social being." He drinks too much, still smokes, has occasional affairs, and, while not cynical (though often perilously close), his world-weary posture is saved by his humor, which leans toward the acerbic.

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