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.

Book Review

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The Roots of Evil, by Quintin Jardine

The final quote on the back cover about this book, from the Glasgow Herald, tells us: “If Ian Rankin is the Robert Carlyle of Scottish crime writers, then Jardine is surely its Sean Connery”; notwithstanding that I’m not sure how complimentary (if at all) this is to the excellent Robert Carlyle, I think the comparison of Jardine’s writing to an actor, someone whose modus operandi is to believably become different people on a regular basis (although in Connery’s case, he could never quite relinquish his ‘shtrong’ Scottish accent, even when playing his best-known character, Bond), perhaps doesn’t convey the message that it was supposed to? In addition, whilst I endeavour to eschew judging a person by his appearance, I think it’s fair to say that one could be forgiven for thinking that the upper body photograph of this author, accompanying the short bio on the inside rear cover, especially by the way he is scowling straight down the lens, could easily be that of one of the ‘villains’ he is accustomed to writing about (although that is undoubtedly presumptuous, on the basis of only reading one of “more than forty published novels”), rather than a man in any way resembling the estimable Mr. Connery. Still, all that said, in Jardine’s defence, his Bob Skinner character (aka Sir Robert Skinner) is a horse of a different feather than Rankin’s Rebus, notwithstanding his predilection for copious use of the f-word; so, this is definitely ’grown-up’ fiction.

This was another book that felt, at first, like it might be ‘hard going’ (although that is probably more a reflection of my capacity to absorb new information than it is of the beginning of this story); and, be warned: there is no shortage of characters whose names must be memorised if the narrative is to be followed, especially given the size of Skinner’s family, as a result of a few different relationships/liaisons. However, it only took me a few chapters to start enjoying the story (and the layout, a very important factor in my enjoyment, of the hardback edition I read, was conducive to easy reading). There is a whiff of nepotism about the relationships between some of the characters, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but when some of these relationships are with currently serving or ex-police officers, surely corruption can only be a half-step away (Line of Duty anyone?). The thread which holds the story together, and which provides the strands that have to be unravelled, is the murder of two police officers; one serving and the other now a civilian; whose bodies are left in a car which is dumped outside one of Edinburgh’s main police stations in the first hour of the first day of 2020 (so it is bang up to date, including a reference to concerns about a new respiratory infection that has surfaced in China at the end of the previous year, and Zoom calls; although I’m not sure how prevalent they were before the pandemic affected Britain): both have been shot, in similar, but crucially different ways.

The clues are revealed slowly, to enable the reader to piece the motivation of the killer or killers together; but of course, they are not revealed in a linear fashion, so a certain amount of mental dexterity is required to put each new nugget in its appropriate pigeonhole. There are international connections as well, so although the action might be confined to dour Edinburgh & its environs, the tentacles of the criminality behind the murders stretch far beyond it. Skinner is in an unusual position, in that he is now Chair of the UK division of an international media company, which among its many activities publishes one of Scotland’s top newspapers, The Saltire, so this can be useful to prevent, or at least mitigate unsavoury scrutiny of police actions and scurrilous speculation thereon; however, he hasn’t completely severed his police connections, because he mentors rising CID officers, and if it aids his investigations as & when required, he can produce a Special Constable’s warrant card. The investigation is brought to a successful conclusion, thereby also solving an outstanding case in another, distant, country, although this is not necessarily satisfactory for all parties involved. I can recommend this book, and I will certainly keep my eyes open for other books by Quintin Jardine. The Roots of Evil is published in hardback by Headline Publishing Group, London, ISBN 978-1-4722-5591-4; trade paperback is also available.