In Bleak House, Dickens used his low-life detective character, Inspector Bucket, to shuttle between mysterious one-off shootings and instances of broader social crime. By doing so, he hoped to redress a narrative imbalance whereby wanton criminals have "a certain sort of poetry" but the criminalised poor are essentially tedious. T S Eliot, writing in 1927, was unimpressed by this, and credited Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (published 15 years after Bleak House) with being the "first and greatest of English detective novels". Perhaps it is not surprising that Dickens found The Moonstone "wearisome beyond endurance".
In the past century and more, British crime writers have overwhelmingly favoured Collins's approach, sidelining doubts about the murky materials of their trade. So it is intriguing that Ian Rankin's latest Inspector Rebus novel is billed as a "state of the nation" work. In Fleshmarket Close, Rebus's wayward and thankless career plunges him into the desperate realities of illegal immigration, extreme racism, barbaric detention centres, de facto slavery and, inevitably, murder. Worse still, this is not what refugees are fleeing from: they are fleeing towards it.
An unidentified corpse, apparently that of an "illegal", is found bearing multiple stab wounds on a covered walkway in a decayed Edinburgh housing estate. Two skeletons are dug up out of a concrete floor in the ancient cellar space of an Edinburgh pub. A young girl, who has lived through the rape and consequent suicide of her elder sister, suddenly goes missing. Rankin takes these disparate threads and, through the deceptively downbeat labours of his protagonist, brilliantly ravels them together. This does not feel contrived. The nation under Rankin's microscope is one in which the string-pullers have the little people at their mercy; if you trace the strings up high enough, they are knotted at the top.
In order to penetrate the crimes which first present themselves, Rebus and his colleague, Siobhan, must fight a tendency to interpret the victims merely as statistics, as impediments to smooth paperwork. This humanising process is by no means straightforward, and Rankin explores their own prejudices and areas of ignorance, along with those of everyone else. Larger arguments about manipulating this dire subject for entertainment and profit are mediated within the novel by reflections on the seedier impulses of the press. Rankin's taut sentences give the narrative customary pace; but what is really striking is the thread of Dickensian anger running through the book. "We spend most of our time chasing . . . 'the underworld'," says Rebus, "but it's the overworld we should really be keeping an eye on."
Firmly in the Wilkie Collins camp, Ruth Rendell's novel employs socially marginal figures (including, as it happens, an illegal immigrant) simply to facilitate a plot that wants human disappearances to remain unnoticed. Thirteen Steps Down follows the fortunes of a charmless and delusional mechanic, Mix Cellini, who is obsessed by the real-life 1940s abortionist/murderer John Reginald Christie. Cellini moves into a flat in the filthy mansion of a Miss Havisham knock-off, Gwendolen Chawcer, in order to be near the site of the original 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, where Christie killed his victims and raped their corpses. As well as being obsessed with Christie, Cellini is hopelessly enamoured of a fashion model, whom he begins to stalk. Miss Chawcer, meanwhile, has spent decades pining for the handsome doctor who once tended her mother in a final illness, and is still troubled by dealings she had with Christie in her youth.
There is a stained-glass window in Miss Chawcer's house showing Isabella and the pot of basil, designed to invoke what Keats called the "sick longing" of those who love in vain; and, in different ways, both landlady and lodger are made miserable by their unrequited desires. Yet this only makes them all the more unpleasant in their dealings with each other. Soon enough, as the dust jacket puts it, "violence explodes".
Thirteen Steps Down is neither whodunnit nor police procedural; nor is there a stand-in detective figure. Suspense is generated from there being many characters who are one step away from revealing a brutal murderer to the world. The question is: will any of them overcome laziness, indifference or the simple wish to keep themselves to themselves, and make the small fuss that should trigger the right sort of investigation?
Rendell has allowed many implausibilities and inconsistencies to creep into her story, giving a slack feel to a form that depends upon being tight. At one point, Cellini doesn't understand that the abortions Christie offered his victims were illegal; at another, he does. Over the book, Cellini's eyes change colour from "honest blue" to hazel, and back again. And working by the information provided about the characters' ages, it follows that Cellini's half-sister gave birth to her first son when she was 11 years old or younger. In addition, there are just too many plot-easing coincidences, not mitigated by characters reflecting on how extraordinary they are.
The point of all this weirdness and gore may be to give us the creeps. But what is really creepy is the way in which, while the narrative implies that only a deviant could relish learning about Christie's crimes, the novel itself is a deft primer on the subject.
Rebecca Gowers is the author of The Swamp of Death: a true tale of Victorian lies and murder (Hamish Hamilton)