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Review: Character matters in new books by Robert Crais, Ian Rankin

For crime fiction writers, series characters can be a blessing and a curse.

From Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple to Harry Bosch and Stephanie Plum, readers love to connect with series characters and follow them through multiple books. For that reason, publishers love series characters, too: They can add up to strong sales over many years.

I've talked to authors who loved their characters and never tired of inventing new adventures for them — and to authors who chafed at what they found to be an obligation that kept them from branching out. Sometimes I've heard both attitudes from the same author at different points in a career.

Scottish novelist Ian Rankin's new book, Standing in Another Man's Grave, brings back John Rebus, the series character who made Rankin an international bestseller. After 17 novels, Rankin put him out to pasture in 2008's Exit Music, but after three non-Rebus books, the irascible detective is back.

I'm happy to report the old curmudgeon hasn't changed a bit. You can practically smell single-malt whiskey, cigarette smoke and damp tweed wafting off the page when he appears, and he will never, ever learn to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise.

Rebus has retired from the Lothian and Borders Police, but he's working as a civilian investigator with a small cold case unit in Edinburgh. That's how he becomes the latest in a long line of cops to be contacted about one of those cold cases by Nina Hazlitt, a mother still grieving over the disappearance of her teenage daughter, Sally, in 1999.

Nina is sure Sally was just the first in a series of young women to vanish over the years somewhere along the A9, the longest road in Scotland. Her reason for contacting the police now: "It's happened again, you see. And it's going to keep happening."

Soon Rebus is embroiled in the very recent disappearance of 15-year-old Annette McKie, a case marked by the same mysterious photo of a bleak landscape, sent from her phone not long after she was last seen, that has been connected to several other missing young women.

The case reunites him with his former protege, Siobhan Clarke, now rising through the ranks and still the object of Rebus' gruff, rarely expressed affection. It also plucks an unexpected string — the missing girl's mother is involved with a small-time crime boss named Frank Hammell, who attracts the interest of Rebus' longtime nemesis and sort-of friend, big-time crime boss Big Ger Cafferty.

As always, Rankin does a splendid job of evoking both the intensity and the tedium of police work, as well as painting Scotland's harsh beauty; one scene involving a cadaver dog's mission combines all that to breathtaking effect. The plot is satisfyingly twisted, echoing with themes of family obligation gone wrong and secrets left to fester.

But the main attraction is Rebus, who is as resistant to authority and devoted to justice as ever, a deeply lonely man who seeks to put other people's lives right, a brilliant investigator who relentlessly pursues what is in every man's heart but his own. I'm glad he's back.

California author Robert Crais has written 15 novels in a series that features not one but two characters: tough Los Angeles private detective Elvis Cole and his even tougher business partner, ex-Marine Joe Pike. Crais has also written several stand-alone novels whose characters have sometimes been incorporated into later Cole-Pike books, and I hope that happens with his newest, Suspect.

Suspect has two main characters, too, although only one of them is human. We're introduced first, in a tense and heart-rending prologue, to Maggie, a Marine on her second deployment in Afghanistan.

Maggie is an 85-pound black-and-tan German shepherd dog, trained for explosives detection and patrol. Born and bred to work, she is utterly focused on her task and her handler, but an IED and a sniper end her military career.

Shipped back to California, still struggling with physical injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, Maggie is on the verge of washing out of the LAPD's K9 program when Scott James notices her.

Scott is struggling as well. A few months before, he was on routine late-night patrol with his partner, Stephanie Anders, to whom he was about to confess his affection. On a quiet street corner, a car cruised past them, then all hell broke loose. When the gun smoke cleared, two businessmen in the passing car were dead, so was Stephanie, Scott was barely clinging to life — and the bad guys were gone.

Refusing to accept a medical retirement, Scott trains for the department's K9 unit, even though he's never owned a dog. He takes on Maggie's rehabilitation as an extension of his own, against the advice of Dominick Leland, the unit's resident guru and dog whisperer.

At the same time, a new pair of detectives is assigned to his case, giving him hope after months of frustration that has been heightened by his own inability to remember much of what happened the night Stephanie died.

Crais skillfully weaves together a well-crafted procedural and the warmer story of Scott and Maggie's sometimes rocky bonding process. Formerly a scriptwriter for such TV series as Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice, Crais is deft at bringing both economy and physicality to a scene.

But once again, characters are the key, whatever their species. Crais writes some chapters from Scott's point of view, some from Maggie's, and the result is an engaging and persuasive portrait of the complex relationship between man and dog. You'll want them both to stay.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

Standing in Another Man's Grave

By Ian Rankin

Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown, 388 pages, $25.99

Suspect

By Robert Crais

Putnam, 312 pages, $27.95

Review: Character matters in new books by Robert Crais, Ian Rankin 03/20/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 6:42pm]

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