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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