Scottish fiction

Standing in Another Man’s Grave – Ian Rankin

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Standing in Another Man’s Grave follows Ian Rankin’s now-retired DI Rebus, who has not given up his need to solve cases.  Working as a civilian with other retired cops in the Cold Case Unit, Rebus meets a woman who claims her daughter was the first victim in a string of murders along Scotland’s A9 motorway.  Rebus, ever a man who loves a damsel in distress, decides to look into the case.  In so doing, he begins to uncover some interesting facts about the current disappearance of a young girl.  He throws himself back in with Siobhan Clarke, and worms his way onto the active investigation.  Wary of Rebus’s presence is another Rankin protagonist, Inspector Malcolm Fox of the Complaints.  Fox cannot believe Rebus is a clean cop, and when Rebus thinks about signing on to active duty, Fox thinks it’s his duty to find all the dirt of Rebus and his strange relationship with mobster Big Ger.

When Standing in Another Man’s Grave was announced, I was excited about the prospect of Fox and Rebus going toe to toe.  There are plenty of our favorite authors who have multiple beloved characters, and wouldn’t we all like to watch these characters meet?  By the earlier released log line, I assumed this was a book from Fox, and that Rebus would be a minor figure.  Paint me astonished, because upon reading it the book was much the other way around.  The majority of the narrative follows Rebus on the case, and we only get a small glimpse into what Fox thinks of this rather old-fashioned cop.  And that glimpse is rather scathing.

Rankin explains in the afterword that he had never really been done with Rebus, but the required retirement age in Scotland had painted him into a corner with Rebus’s employment.  Because John Rebus would never become a private detective nor would he be able to find crimes to solve while not on active duty, Rebus was retired.  But then Rankin heard about the Cold Case Unit employing retired cops, and even better, the age restriction being raised.  Suddenly, Rebus could come back and back he came.

I was mostly happy with the return of Rebus.  He got up to his old tricks, but painted against the backdrop of Siobhan’s career choices and Fox’s opinions, it was hard not to feel that Rebus was a bit out of place in modern crime solving.  Which is what I think Rankin wanted to do, but, not giving anything away, the ending really cemented that maybe Rebus has gone too far to prove he is still relevant and can deliver results.  Going forward with any new Rebus, it would be interesting to see if Rankin would tame him a bit, allow him to adjust to the newer way of doing things.  Otherwise, the reality of Rebus staying in the force would seem a bit stretched, and Rankin has been fairly fastidious about being realistic.

As for the meeting of the minds, it was rather intriguing to see Fox set against the backdrop of Rebus.  Having read both The Complaints and The Impossible Dead, Fox is a character I thought I knew quite well.  When things are told from his side of the story, you automatically assume guilt on the part of the cops, and you know why Fox goes after them so hard.  But when Fox comes after Rebus, and you know Rebus is innocent, it puts a whole new spin on the view of a narrator.  After all, from Fox’s perspective, this is a retired cop interested in rejoining the ranks who still works for the police department, has biweekly nights out with former mobster Big Ger Cafferty, and by all accounts, saved Cafferty’s life.  But we know that Rebus hates Cafferty and that his motives are pure, even if his methods aren’t.  Standing in Another Man’s Grave brings these two protagonists against each other and says a lot more about the respective characters when the reader thought they knew enough already.

As a crime novel, I found Rankin’s newest offering to be mostly on par with his previous works.  My only real complaint was the end of the book, and the issue was that Rebus was so strong-handed that I felt it cheapened and lessened the criminal’s confession.  However, having another Rebus and seeing that there is still a lot more to his story makes my day, and I will continue to read any new offerings.  (It gave me chills to see “Rebus is Back” right there on the cover.)

Rating: 7.5/10

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Gods & Beasts – Denise Mina

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Gods and Beasts is the third novel featuring DS Alex Morrow and follows her investigation into a pre-Christmas post office shooting and robbery.  While she tries to unravel the mystery, Alex just wants to be home with her new twin boys and husband.  Woven in is the mysterious young man who cared for a boy while his grandfather was shot, increasing amounts of police bribery, and a corrupt MP fighting scandalous allegations.

Mina is known for her deep, psychological crime fiction, and I expected Gods and Beasts to be on par or better than End of the Wasp Season.  I am afraid this newest installment fell a little short of its predecessor.  It is several pages before we even see Alex Morrow, our protagonist, and the lack of focus on her makes the book feel very full.  There are countless characters all involved in various schemes, and even I had a hard time remembering which names fit into which story.  The entire MP storyline could have been lifted from the book without a lot of bother.  It only sheds light on the major ending twist; a twist that could have been delivered another way easily.  Instead, Mina’s desire to delve into the political feels misplaced and could have been more powerful in another novel.

One thing that worked very well in Gods and Beasts was Morrow’s new motherhood.  Mina is one of the few crime authors I’ve read that has had her main character be personally successful.  In fact, during Bloody Scotland, Mina mentioned that she wanted “to write a cop who is very happy at home, just to be outrageous.”  Morrow’s desire to be at home, her appreciation for her “second-chance at motherhood”, and her desire to push forward in her life were quite refreshing.  She even admits her familial connection with half-brother mobster Danny to her bosses, just to prove she isn’t ashamed of who she is.  I loved that about her, the strength it must have taken.  DS Alex Morrow has shown one of the better character progressions in Scottish crime fiction, and Mina shows great restraint in not mucking it up for drama.

Gods and Beasts is still a fantastic read, even if it did have a high standard to live up to with End of the Wasp Season.  While it lacks the same depth in its criminals that we have gotten more often from Mina, she does bring a new twist to a genre that constantly redefines itself in Scotland.  Now if we could just have gotten rid of Kenny Gallagher MP, the story would be tight.

Rating: 7/10

The Impossible Dead – Ian Rankin

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Impossible DeadIn his second outing, Malcolm Fox has managed to find himself wrapped up in yet another mystery.  While investigating a corrupt cop in Fife, Fox finds himself increasingly interested in a case that dates back 20 years.  Embroiled in the unsolved murder of an ’80s political idealist, Fox gets distracted from his actual case and angers the wrong people.  Concurrently dealing with his sister’s anger and his father’s failing health, Fox must find a way to work within his constraints as a Complaints officer and still satisfy his growing curiosity.

Rankin certainly has a different set of constraints to work in here.  With Rebus, it was almost easy to see why he would go off the rails a bit.  After all, Rebus had a sense of justice and usually came about the crimes in his other CID investigations.  Fox, however, feels a bit too much like a bored man turned detective.  Akin to Victorian mysteries, he simply has too much time on his hands.  In The Complaints, Fox was trying to clear his sister’s name.  But in The Impossible Dead, there is no real tie to the mystery other than satisfying his own curiosity.  Fox does not even appear driven by that justice that drove Rebus to bring down everyone who committed a wrong.  Fox is still a fresh character, and I am sure Rankin will get a better handle on Fox’s motivations within the next couple of novels.

The mystery itself was really interesting and had a lot of pieces that I never would have seen coming.  In these small pieces, Rankin truly is a master.  He is able to carefully weave a story around a central idea, tying everything together in the end, while keeping the killer a complete mystery.  I honestly cannot say that I have solved very many of Rankin’s mysteries before Rebus (or Fox) solved them for me.  That is what I really like about Rankin.  A lot of authors give it away in the beginning or have so few twists and turns that it is a straight path to the killer.  While you may get nigglings that you know who is behind the dead bodies, you are never fully sure until Rankin’s protagonist corners the killer with his theories.  While I do love watching a detective come to their own conclusions, I love it even more if I am kept in the dark and experiencing it along with the detective.

One thing that I particularly love about Rankin is the complexity of his characters, and Fox is no exception.  Rankin manages to weave an interesting mystery around the happenings in a family.  When Fox’s father falls ill and his sister rejects him, you feel sorry that he does not have a stronger relationship with her.  The complicated relationship between siblings (made even more complicated by Jude’s boyfriend’s death in The Complaints) is real and touching.  While they do not make great strides towards a more friendly arrangement, they certainly try their best.  Sure, you don’t go to Rankin expecting a familial drama, but he has continued to do a good job providing one within the confines of crime fiction.  After all, who wants to read about a detective with no depth, no history, and no complications?

Rating: 8/10

The Complaints – Ian Rankin

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The ComplaintsThis was a great choice for audiobook, if only because I was severely missing hearing the Scottish accent on a daily basis.  Peter Forbes narrated, and did a fantastic job of infusing the various characters with different voices and personalities.  I also appreciated that he narrated in an Edinburgh accent (not sure where he’s from exactly, couldn’t figure it out).  While my ear isn’t very well trained, it would feel wrong to have Ian Rankin read by a Glaswegian, whose thicker accents are not heard in Edinburgh.

The Complaints introduces readers to Malcolm Fox, an Inspector in the Complaints department.  For American readers, that would mean Internal Affairs, the cops who investigate other cops.  Malcolm is perfect for the Complaints; he always follows the rules and does not care who he investigates if they are breaking the rules.  The book begins with Malcolm having wrapped an investigation into a corrupt DI named Glen Heaton, and getting an assignment to investigate young DS Jamie Breck.  Just after he begins his investigation, Malcom’s sister’s abusive partner turns up dead, and DS Breck is investigating the murder.  Throw in the apparent suicide of a prominent property developer, and Malcolm is left reeling from everything that seems so connected.

Let’s talk about Malcolm Fox himself.  I really liked him.  He was an interesting departure from the normal Tartan Noir character.  He had his moments, but for the most part was very likable.  He could maintain relationships and got on with others without much problem.  Well, perhaps not with those who were doing wrong, but Malcolm’s easy friendship with Breck was at the core of the conspiracy against both men.  Malcolm holds a good relationship with his father and tries to heal the strained one with his sister (strained mostly because he could not stand to watch her abused by her partner).  While he could sustain a romantic relationship, Malcolm seems well adjusted in many other ways.  This is a severe difference from Rebus, and since Fox looks to be the center of a series, should show Rankin’s diversity as an author.  In fact, I would say that with Malcolm comes a reinvention of crime fiction stereotypes, paving the way for other characters like him.  He worked the entire case with Breck at his side, something most crime fiction detectives would never do.

At the center of The Complaints is the theme of family and what one would do for them.  Malcolm abandons his rules and goes rogue in order to protect his sister.  Even after he’s put on probation, Malcolm continues to go for the answers that would help his sister heal.  Family is mentioned again and again, amongst several other characters.  When most crime fiction novels focus on the loners in the world, this book brought the families to the forefront.  I like the transition.  Of course, some of these families were criminals, but that’s beside the point.

With more experience, you can tell that Rankin has created a stronger start to this series than with Rebus.  I felt that The Complaints was technically better, written with a series in mind, and set up with a stronger character.  I’m not knocking Rebus by any means, but there is no denying that The Complaints was far more sophisticated than Knots and Crosses.

Only downside to an audiobook is that it’s harder to remember all of the tiny details.  Oh darn, I’ll just have to read it again.

Rating: 8.5/10
Audiobook: 9/10

Introducing Book Talk

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Perhaps the greatest thing the internet provides (besides cat videos) is connectivity.  Now we can access all sorts of knowledge quickly and efficiently, and even book groups are being reformed.  While the traditional book group with a few friends and some snacks is always fun, it certainly limits who can participate (geography is, after all, key).  Online book groups are growing in popularity, giving us book lovers a way to discuss and share our ideas on certain books even if we’re miles away.

I’d like to help introduce Scottish Book Trust’s endeavor, Book Talk.  Aimed at Scots but of course open to the rest of the world, Book Talk aims to be a vast online community where readers can come together and discuss their favorite works. Featuring podcast discussions, author interviews, linked reviews, and more, Book Talk will engage readers of all backgrounds across Scotland and beyond.

This month’s program opens with The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai, a freshman novel that has just enough controversy to get the discussions rolling.  The Borrower focuses on Lucy, a small-town children’s librarian who wants to help “save” her favorite patron.

Though starting with an American novel, Book Talk “will feature books from a broad range of genres, from both new and established authors, with a particular focus on books by writers based in Scotland.”  (Quoted from Book Talk’s press release)  Tune into their Twitter feed @BookTalk_SBT or like them on Facebook  to join Scotland’s national book club.

Happy reading!

End of the Wasp Season – Denise Mina

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The End of the Wasp Season coverI am sort of afraid that some people might think I’m a bit obsessed with Mina and with Rankin.  In my defense, they are well worth the obsession.  I swear, I do read other authors, but when a new Mina book comes out, I have to stop everything and read.

The End of the Wasp Season is the second in the DI Alex Morrow series.  Pregnant with twins, Morrow seems almost healed from the loss of her young son a couple of years before.  Though her coworkers think the pregnancy makes her frail, Morrow is more confident and enmeshed in her work than ever.  Investigating the death of Sarah Erroll brings Morrow back into the life of an old school friend, reminding Morrow of the past she tries so hard to forget.  Morrow must deal with her complicated relationship with her half-brother Danny, her pregnancy, and her sympathy for the victim that has landed at the center of this story.

DI Alex Morrow is potentially the most relatable cop coming out of Scottish crime fiction.  She does not consider herself above anyone else (a trait that Rebus sometimes falls into), does not think that she has skills someone else does not.  Morrow merely presses the issue, follows her gut, and feels for the victim.  It is unusual for crime fiction to have much sympathy for the person now dead.  After all, the bodies tend to be the impetus for the game, nothing more than a piece on a checker board.  Morrow, however, is sickened by the attitude her fellow officers have towards the disfigured body of Sarah Erroll.  She is motivated to catch the killer not as part of her job or to serve justice to the wicked, but to help provide closure to Sarah’s dangling existence.  The final push that leads Morrow to the killers is fueled by a simple video of Sarah sent to Morrow by one of Sarah’s friends.

Morrow’s anger has abated in this novel, and I like it better.  She maintains an edge, but the lack of quick anger helps to demonstrate the steps she has taken to move on after the loss of a young child.  Alex is not soft by any means, but she learns through her rediscovered friend Kay, her husband, and even through the murderer what a good family could mean to someone.  Perhaps “good” is not the word, but rather “accepting”.  Knowing who you are, where you come from, and accepting that could make all the difference in the world.

Now, to our killer.  Thomas is a young man whose thoughts can be terribly depressing.  His father is a large financier who has just lost everything.  The book implies a scandal of some sort, but like Thomas, we never fully understand what happened.  His father, Lars, confesses to Thomas that there is another woman he calls his wife, and he has another son and daughter the same age as Thomas and his younger sister.  Unable to cope, he made the trip to Sarah’s thinking she was the other wife.  He takes his friend Squeak with him, and Thomas is scarred because of what happened in that house.  Lars kills himself the day the boys kill Sarah, and Thomas is ushered home to his insane mother and equally mental sister.  He tries to act the adult, but finds he cannot cope both with what he has done and how his family behaves.

There are two things that are interesting about Thomas.  One, that he reminds me most of William McIlvanney’s murderer in Laidlaw.  The Glaswegian detective that kick-started the tartan noir, McIlvanney manages to make his own killer Tommy sympathetic.  You feel sorry for him, understand him.  There are few authors out there who manage to make you root, in a sense, for the killer.  Mina does that with Thomas (same name, ironically).  You delve so deep into his psyche and into his problems, that you see where he has been capable of what he has done.  There are, again, a lot of Jekyll and Hyde tendencies in Thomas, the normal boy making you pity the monster within him.

The other interesting tidbit lies in the mind’s ability to trick itself.  After all he has done and seen, Thomas tries tirelessly to wipe the images and actions out of his mind.  You as the reader wonder just how much he really participated in the act of Sarah’s murder, if his protestations to himself are all an act or if they are sincere.  He has never seen his sister’s mental illness because he did not want to see it.  He wanted instead to feel jealous of her and the doting attention paid her by his parents.  The mind tricks us to protect us, and that is the lesson that Thomas seems to learn, mostly, from his experiences.

Mina has again crafted a novel that is psychologically superior to most of her contemporaries.  Morrow is our MC, well-rounded, growing (not just in pregnancy, haha), and learning in her career.  She cares, and so it is much easier for us to care about her.  But Mina does not just give us Morrow as a narrator.  She gives us our victim, so that we can feel compassion for her.  Mina writes from Kay, Morrow’s school friend, so that we can see Morrow and the police from a different light.  And Mina takes us deep into the mind of the killer, but not leaving us feeling disgusted like so many other writers choose to do.  Instead, we feel pity for the boy who was never loved and cast aside by the father he so hopelessly tried to please.  Four fully-fleshed characters to narrate our story, each with a different one to tell, and each completely captivating.  This is why Mina excels and remains at the top of Scottish crime fiction – she makes us care about each and every character in her story.

Rating: 9/10 (I only take off a point because the book opens with Sarah’s view instead of Alex, and it was a little jarring for me.)

Format read: Kindle

Author Spotlight – Robert Louis Stevenson

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Robert Louis Stevenson is a complicated man whose life was full of interesting tidbits.  Born and raised in Scotland, Stevenson’s father Thomas was a lighthouse engineer.  His uncle David was a lighthouse engineer.  His grandfather Robert was a lighthouse engineer.  So you can probably guess what Stevenson planned on studying when he entered the University of Edinburgh.  Robert, however, had no interest in engineering and soon decided to turn to a life of writing instead.

Stevenson is best known for three novels, and each of them very different from the other:  The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Kidnapped, and Treasure Island.  Though both Kidnapped and Treasure Island are tales of boys experiencing grand adventure, they differ in their fundamentals.  Treasure Island always read to me more of an adventure story.  Scary, yes, but fun and exhilarating.  Stevenson meant it as a story for boys to enjoy.  Kidnapped focused on David Balfour reclaiming his legal inheritance.  Though it contains pirates of sort and Alan Breck’s loud character to entertain us, it feels much more adult.  In fact, the questions of the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland enter it into a different commentary all together:  historical fiction and Scottish nationality.  But David is still a boy growing into a young man, much like Jim of Treasure Island.

Perhaps most different is Jekyll and Hyde.  This short novella has been treated with respect nearing on reverence, especially those who are in the crime fiction genre.  Authors such as Ian Rankin will make constant references to it, and even Denise Mina’s work is littered with its influence.  Potentially the best-known story, and yet, hardly anyone I know have ever actually read the novella.  That is the power of a strong, resonating story.  Jekyll and Hyde are names that almost anyone could identify, and characters whose story almost anyone would know.  Obviously, the idea of man’s duality resonates with most of us humans.

The Eilean Ban Lighthouse, designed by Thomas and David Stevenson, near the Isle of Skye. Image credit: me

Stevenson was prone with illness, and so eventually settled in Somoa and the South Pacific for his health.  From there, he wrote haunting island narratives.  South Sea Tales is a collection of short stories,  containing “The Beach of Falesá”, “The Bottle Imp”, and “The Isle of Voices”.  In each, Stevenson explores the darker nature of the men who populate the idyllic islands.  I particularly liked “The Beach of Falesá” as it shows both the horrific nature and kindness of the human spirit.  They are not exhibited in the same being, this time.  Rather, the story follows a battle between two European merchants in the Islands.  One has tried to trick the other into marrying a woman believed to be cursed by the other villagers.  With a cursed woman as his wife, no one will buy from the second merchant.  But he overcomes his trials and loveds his wife, no matter what could be said about her.  Disturbing and touching, it’s a short story that really illustrates Stevenson’s strength:  showing the evil existing beside the good.

Though he died in 1894, Stevenson’s influence and reputation continues to grow.  Now, go read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!