Scottish mystery writer Ian Rankin has spent the last few years transitioning from his much-beloved rumpled detective John Rebus to the relatively straight-laced Malcolm Fox, who investigates the cops gone wrong. Rankin’s latest novel finds Rebus coming out of retirement to work on a cold case squad, unexpectedly finding a connection between a series of disappearances and the suspected kidnap of a teenaged girl. Meanwhile, Rebus is getting regular visits from the also-supposedly-retired gangster Morris Cafferty, whose life was saved by Rebus. These meetings arouse the suspicion of Fox, who hates the sort of police methodology that Rebus’ generation represents.
Rebus pushes on regardless, irritating superiors and leaning on longtime partner Siobhan Clarke. Rankin wisely makes this novel much more about Rebus and the changing of the guard to Siobhan’s new team than it is about Fox and the Complaints; for all of Fox’s threats, nothing really comes of them. I appreciated that this novel was not so much a definitive farewell to Rebus as it was an intersection of the different aspects of Rankin’s Edinburgh, divided not so much by what side of the law they represent as their generation. We see Rebus and Cafferty plus other old villains, being supplanted by Clarke and her team against clever, computer-savvy criminals, with Fox watching over it all. If Rankin was making a case for a new series of novels about Clarke running alongside those of the Complaints, I would buy them.
The Silent History is a serialized sort-of-interactive novel available from the iTunes store. It is the story of a near future world where a significant number of babies have been born without conventional language acquisition: they don’t speak, they are not deaf but don’t seem to respond to speech, they cannot learn sign language. They simply are silent. The book is told from the point of view of several people, each with his or her own agenda and experience as the years pass and the “silents” grow older.
The book is divided into 6 parts, each of which has 20 short chapters that are being released on weekdays, so that the entire story will have been distributed after about 6 months. As I write this, four months of the story are remaining. If you buy the app, you can also become a “reporter” who submits geotagged short stories about your experiences with the silents in that place.
If all this sounds kind of cool, well, it is. The Silent History app is a triumph of interface design and a great idea. But, it is also extremely frustrating, because I don’t really want to wait four more months to finish reading this story, and there isn’t really any reason why I should have to. The conceit of the interface is not worth the waiting game. And the conceit of the geotagged reports is even worse: you can only access them if you are standing in the exact place tagged by the writer. That’s great for people living in, say, New York, where there are currently 33 reports available; but the closest one to me is somewhere in Montreal. Since these user-generated reports are presumably non-canonical, I can’t imagine why the app maker essentially makes it impossible for many users to ever see them.
The Silent History is a cool idea gone horribly wrong, promising a good story to its subscribers and then saying we can’t have it; or we can, but very slowly. I do recommend you read it if you get a chance, but you might want to wait until March.
Over the last few years I have been reading the Inspector Rebus novels of Scottish writer Ian Rankin, whose works account for something like a quarter of all mystery book sales in the UK. I have never been a compulsive mystery novel reader, finding many of them to be tedious; but when I find a character and supporting cast that I like, be it Rebus, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, Agatha Christie’s Poirot, or Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, I will gladly follow.
So it has been with Rebus, the cantankerous Detective Inspector from Edinburgh who aged in real time in Rankin’s series, from a book called Knots and Crosses through sixteen more, concluding with Exit Music. More so than most writers of any genre, the series gave Rankin an opportunity to reflect the changing times in his home country, not only for the police and criminals but for the ordinary citizen as well. Through it all, Rebus keeps his head down and does the job, seeing that justice is served more often than not, spending his off-hours in the Oxford bar or listening to old records at home, unable to maintain more than a few friendships.
As Rankin’s signature series wound down, he decided to start a new one from a slightly different vantage point; that of the “Complaints,” the Scottish equivalent of the Internal Affairs division, featuring a detective called Malcolm Fox. Fox shares some qualities with Rebus, most notably a willingness to circumvent procedure in the name of justice; but he is also younger and does not drink. In any case Fox allows Rankin a window through which to show the continuing evolution of Scotland, including the increased accountability of its police and public figures. There are only two novels featuring Fox published to date; I was pleased to learn that a new one entitled Standing in Another Man’s Grave will be released early next year, in which Fox meets the now-retired Rebus.