Fiction - Massacre of the innocents
A Question of Blood
Ian Rankin Orion, 360pp, £17.99
Ian Rankin describes his 14th novel in the bestselling Inspector Rebus series as a story "about blood, about family and friendships, about betrayal". Blood is indeed at the heart of the book and in Rankin's hands it runs much thicker than in most. At his best, there are few writers who can match him for imaginative, multi-layered plots. And after a comparatively weary last outing, he has returned to form with a novel of startling depth.
A Question of Blood opens in the aftermath of a shooting at a private school just north of Edinburgh. Two 17-year-olds were killed and another wounded by an ex-army loner, who then turned the gun on himself. With his haunted military past, Rebus is considered the best candidate to get inside the head of the tortured gunman. Military investigators, political scandal and the mandatory internet pornography make this case more complicated than one of psychological breakdown. In addition to this, a petty criminal who has been stalking Rebus's friend and colleague Siobhan is found burnt to death hours after drinking with our inspector.
Rankin is celebrated for bringing the "dark, shrivelled heart" of Edinburgh to life. Here, his sense of place is as strong as ever. When a seemingly inexplicable act shatters a whole community, he explores the bewilderment of those on the periphery of the tragedy and the desolation of those most personally affected. Rebus's discovery that he is related to one of the victims gives the investigation an emotional intensity well suited to the sparse prose.
While the narrative inevitably echoes the massacres of Lockerbie and Dunblane, this is much more than a Scottish tragedy. It is very much a novel of grown men on the edge - and Rebus is no exception. One of the many pleasures of Rankin's series is the distance this most archetypal and individual of detectives has travelled between the first book and the most recent. Rebus is ageing well, becoming as attuned to the small kindnesses in life as to the acts of cruelty. His developing relationship with Siobhan provides both a thrilling climax and an antidote to the book's bleak conclusion. In a genre where murder is the norm, it is testament to Rankin's talent that he succeeds in making death seem as incongruous and painful as it does in real life.