Book Review

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A Question of Blood, by Ian Rankin

This is one of Rankin’s books that have been dramatised for television which I have seen, albeit some months ago now: it was not in the first series, with John Hannah playing the rôle of John Rebus, and with no disrespect intended to Hannah, he never quite seemed comfortable playing the part to me, whereas Ken Stott was a much better fit, with his lived-in face & sardonic personality. I only remember some of the details of the TV version, although I have a feeling that the story was changed in some respects; but I digress. It was enjoyable being able to visualise the faces of Rebus and his sidekick DS Siobhan Clarke as the actors playing them: lazy perhaps, but it makes the story seem somehow more real.

Rebus is under investigation, although still working, following the death in a fire of a local small-scale criminal who had been stalking DS Clarke, and had even struck her during one encounter; Rebus was, ostensibly, the last person to see the man alive and, coincidentally, his hands are bandaged at the beginning of the story: his story, to which he is sticking, is that his hands were scalded, not burnt: the primary difficulty is that Rebus was intoxicated [not an unusual occurrence, it must be said] when he returned home, so he remembers little of the conclusion of the evening. He is expecting to be called in for an interview any time soon, but in the meantime, he is asked by an erstwhile colleague, DI Bobby Hogan, to assist him in investigating what drove an ex-army man to murder two male pupils at one of the local private schools, wound another, then turn the gun on himself. In Rebus’s words: “…there’s no mystery … except the why”. Unfortunately, it transpires that one of the victims was a blood relative: hence one explanation for the title of the book.

There is a very useful introduction at the beginning of the book which, in addition to giving background information on a couple of the peripheral characters found in the story, also explains a possibly less well-known fact about Edinburgh: “Around a quarter of all high-school pupils in the city attend fee-paying institutions — a much higher percentage than any other city in Scotland (and maybe even the UK).…I already had it in mind that my next book would discuss the theme of the outsider.” In this observation, he also includes his protagonist: “Rebus is a perennial outsider, of course, incapable of working as part of a cohesive team.” Another connection to the perpetrator of the school murders, which proves to be useful as the narrative progresses, is that Rebus has an armed forces background: the shooter, Lee Herdman, was ex-SAS; Rebus failed the ‘psychEval’ for this elite unit, and suffered a mental breakdown as a consequence, so he is very conscious of the effects of combat on serving soldiers.

Of course, Rebus doesn’t accept the official explanation for this terrible event, nor the discovery of a significant quantity of narcotics on one of Herdman’s boats by two investigators who are clearly with the armed forces, and prove to be a thorn in Rebus’s side during the investigation. Rebus’s scepticism proves to be well-founded, and the explanation for the train of events is one which takes nearly everybody by surprise. The narrative is nicely paced, and we learn enough about John Rebus to be able to understand him that bit better; there is also Rankin’s trademark catholic taste in music in evidence in Rebus’s choice of listening. The book was first published in Britain in 2003 by Orion Books, London; it was reissued in 2012, and the paperback version I read, ISBN 978-0-7528-8366-3, was published in 2004.

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