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Review: Rankin's Rebus just can't retire in 'Rather Be the Devil'

In September 2018, Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, will be held in St. Petersburg. Its honoree for lifetime achievement will be Scottish novelist Ian Rankin. I'm looking forward to hearing him speak, because there are few other crime fiction writers so adept at keeping a mystery series fresh and compelling.

Case in point: Rather Be the Devil, his 24th book about the wonderfully curmudgeonly John Rebus, long a detective inspector with the police force in Edinburgh. Rebus retired in Exit Music in 2007, and Rankin wrote several novels involving the detective's friend and protege Siobhan Clarke and Internal Affairs investigator Malcolm Fox.

Rebus returned, as much a maverick as ever, in Standing in Another Man's Grave in 2012 and has since been back at the center of Rankin's books as a volunteer working cold cases (with Clarke and Fox usually along for the ride).

In Rather Be the Devil, Rebus is well and truly retired — for a few pages. Rankin opens the book with a celebratory dinner by Rebus and his current romantic interest, Deborah Quant, a police pathologist. For Rebus, it's been "a week without cigarettes.

"Seven whole days.

"A hundred and sixty-eight hours."

Not that he misses smoking, or that he minds cutting back his considerable beer consumption in the interest of health. What he can't maintain, though, is giving up detecting. The elegant restaurant where he and Quant are dining is in the Caledonian, one of the city's best hotels — and the site of an unsolved murder that has been haunting Rebus for 40 years.

He tells Quant the story of the death of Maria Turquand, the beautiful and sexually adventurous wife of a wealthy banker, strangled in her hotel room. There were plenty of suspects — the husband, a current lover, a former one, even a rock star staying at the Caledonian. Rebus worked the case briefly, but no one was ever charged.

As Rebus heads home, inspired to riffle through his old files about the Turquand case, Clarke is getting a call to investigate a vicious attack on Darryl Christie, a young man who's a powerhouse in Edinburgh's criminal community. He has been severely beaten in his own driveway by an unknown person. Clarke — and Rebus — know Christie well as the upstart who challenged the dominance of another of Rankin's great continuing characters, crime boss Gerald "Big Ger" Cafferty.

Clarke needs to talk to Cafferty, and she reckons Rebus will know how to find him — the two men have a long and complicated relationship despite being on opposite sides of the law.

Fox is soon in on the investigation as well. He has been promoted to the Scottish Crime Campus, where multiple agencies and task forces work together, and the Christie attack ties into something his unit is working on, although he's vague about what. He's still mooning after Clarke, and she's stung by his promotion, since she considers herself better qualified (as does he).

As the Christie case develops, it seems to have distant connections, oddly enough, to the Turquand murder. The trail also leads to a betting parlor where Fox discovers his hapless sister, Jude — and an empty apartment upstairs whose address is linked to a startling number of businesses. Cafferty gives Rebus some advice about the case that sounds ripped from the headlines: "Look for a Russian. You can thank me later."

There's an echo of Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty in Rebus' relationship to Cafferty. The two Scots are much rougher men than Arthur Conan Doyle's refined creations, but there is a similar secret bond between them — the unspoken notion that they, like Holmes and Moriarty, are always the smartest guys in the room. Or the city.

Watching them circle wolfishly around each other, playing a subtle game with deadly stakes, is one of the series' pleasures, along with the delight of seeing Rebus solve, as his name suggests, the most stubborn puzzles. As one suspect says when tantalizing him with information about Turquand, "Maybe you're the sort of man who craves closure more than lucre."

Maybe, like me, you're a reader who craves closure, a mystery fan who has too often had the experience of enjoying a book right up until an ending that leaves you thinking, "That's all?"

Rather Be the Devil will not disappoint — in the last 30 pages or so, Rankin delivers so many shocking but satisfying twists I felt I might have whiplash.

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.


Be the Devil

By Ian Rankin

Little, Brown, 320 pages, $27

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Review: Rankin's Rebus just can't retire in 'Rather Be the Devil' 01/26/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2017 2:50pm]
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