Book Review: A Song for the Dark Times — Ian Rankin

After taking a breather in 2019, John Rebus is back for dark times indeed. In a post-Brexit-vote but pre-COVID world, is there room for a retired detective for whom everything is changing too fast? Ian Rankin returns with his most enduring character and his two sidekicks still on the force, for whom he feels varying degrees of affection, and none of them are found wanting.

Change is afoot in John Rebus’ life. After spending 22 books in his upstairs apartment, Rebus relocates to the ground floor. Before he can get the chance to settle in and get a good brood on, he is called away to Tongue, where his daughter is suspected in the disappearance of her partner. On the home front, Siobhan Clarke teams up with straight shooter Malcolm Fox to investigate the murder of a Saudi princeling, but Fox may be getting too cosy with “Big Ger” Cafferty.

Rebus has been in some form of retirement for approximately seven books now and is a somewhat ailing old man, so it’s no surprise that Rankin had to make it personal this time. Samantha Rebus has never been much of a character in Rebus’ orbit, by design: his focus has always been on the job to the exclusion of almost all others. She was introduced as essentially a prop in Hide & Seek, back when Rankin’s tastes in murder, mayhem, and crime were decidedly more Catholic, and since then she’s had little more than a walk on role. When Rankin gives himself a chance to flesh out the character, we realise that she’s not that nice herself — stubborn as her father and, frankly, a murder suspect. 

Still, given that Rebus has a new apartment, a dog that he is devoted to, and is finally starting to take his health seriously, Rankin is taking another step towards softening the man by making him have to demonstrate care for his family. It’s not an unwelcome development, and there’s definitely room in his life for more human connections. It is clear that Rebus can’t be directly involved in police work much longer — he’s not a million years old, but you can hear him creaking as you turn the pages — so it is curious to see what Rankin can do without explicitly putting him completely out to pasture.

In a Rebus book, the murderer is not always someone who was a prime suspect or a vocal presence, and that’s quite all right: Rankin has always been good at the reality of detective work leading to mundane but reasonable conclusions (with the obvious except of Tooth & Nail, which has the most memorably ludicrous “eureka” moment in Rebus history). The Tongue section of A Song for the Dark Times is neatly constructed, and the people there are quite literally accommodating.

Which brings the reader to the actual paid police work. Siobhan’s case is rather more standard than Rebus’, which means that the enjoyment derived is entire from the way that the ensemble handles it. Siobhan is grating against a professional ceiling that may have been placed there for her by Rebus, and she and Rankin both continue to be ambivalent towards Malcolm Fox, who may be in over his head. Most curious about this instalment is that Cafferty does not interact with Rebus at all, instead choosing those who might be more useful to him. Ever since Cafferty “died” in Exit Music, he has provided an interesting through line for the series that was lacking before; Rankin doesn’t resolve his story here, but tantalises nonetheless.

The most disappointing moment in A Song for the Dark Times is Siobhan’s fault rather than Rankin’s: charged with the care of Brillo, Rebus’ dog, she drives him to a nightclub and leaves him in the car with the window cracked while conducting an interview. Even on a dark and cold Edinburgh night, it’s still not on. That’s the worst that one can say about the book (for those concerned, Brillo emerges from these pages unharmed).

One does not have to have read the entire 23 volume Rebuscycle to enjoy A Song for the Dark Times, although it would help. Like the best detective fiction, Ian Rankin gives us a hard-headed detective and gives him something to gnaw at until he comes out with something approximating a solution. With superb character work, a side of UK history rarely explored in popular fiction and, as always, the promise of more, A Song for the Dark Times is an exemplar of both Rebusand crime novels alike. A deadly combination.

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