I picked this up because I was in Edinburgh, Scotland and had been on a Literary Walking Tour of the city’s most famous writers and Rankin’s name kept coming up. We passed places he hung out, locations from his books, and heard stories about his life. So when I had the opportunity to grab one of his Rebus thrillers I took it, feeling like it’s a good thing to read local writers.
I can say this: He knows his city. Edinburgh is very well drawn and really comes alive in The Black Book, which is my first, but the 5th Rebus in what is, as of this writing, an 18 book series. The back cover sports a quote from James Ellroy, proclaiming Rankin “the Scottish James Ellroy” which is pretty funny, except for one thing: He’s not.
Ellroy’s writing is gritty and hard. There’s a scene in The Black Dahlia where, after reading it, you want to take a shower. Rankin doesn’t even come close. While the city is nicely drawn, the characters are rather flat and the writing is repetitive and pedantic. Even worse, and this is something which bugs me to no end when reading thrillers, we shouldn’t be able to figure it out very far ahead of the detective. If you get it a few lines before the detective pieces it together, that’s okay. But to have major clues staring the detective in the face for half the book and we, as readers, saying “how do you not see this?” is an unpardonable crime in detective fiction. And at the same time, Rankin, in order not to give anything away, falls back on the old standby of telling us something is going on but not what. All in all, at least with this book, it feels like Rankin isn’t playing fair with his readers.
It says in the author’s note that this is the book where Rankin realized he was writing a series (how it takes you 5 books to figure this out says more about him than it does about the books, but okay) so maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe because he now felt he was writing a series, he thought he should do things differently. I don’t know. But I do know that at the end of the day, this wasn’t a terribly satisfying read and I probably won’t be picking up any more of the Rebus books, even if I do miss Edinburgh.