Sunday, March 23, 2003

THE BLACK BOOK by Ian Rankin: Labeled the "king of tartan noir" by James Ellroy, Rankin is the hottest British crime writer on the scene. He pounds out a slick plot and compelling and intense characters, and his dark and moody series with Inspector John Rebus has gained him solid reviews from the critics and a host of satisfied readers. Rankin's BLACK BOOK, published in 1993, continues the successful Rebus series. Rebus's girlfriend has kicked him out of her house and he can't go back to his place because he has rented it to a group of college students. He hates his job, his drug dealing brother is looking for a place to stay, and the tax people are hinting that he has undeclared income from renting his flat. Amidst the ruins of his personal life, he learns that his friend has been beaten into a coma. An investigation leads back to a mysterious fire that brought down a seedy Edinburgh hotel five years earlier and an unidentified body found in the ashes. And now, thrown from the force for using desperate measures, Rebus doggedly pursues a truth that nobody wants revealed. 

James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler are two of Rankin's favorite authors, and their influence is reflected in his writing. THE BLACK BOOK parallels much of Ellroy's work with an oppressive darkness cast by an all-consuming blanket of corruption, crime, and graft. There is a sense of the world gone terribly wrong. But whereas in Ellroy's work the degeneracy generally touches everyone and everything, Rebus is the unflinching and noble knight in tarnished armor, a modern day protégé to Chandler's Marlowe. Rankin has done a fine job of breathing new life into the old cliché of the lone crusader struggling against the world in order to expose the truth and invoke justice. 

Chandler was noted for his superb ability to use descriptive scenes from the city to complement the mood of the story, and Rankin's ability to evoke Edinburgh is strongly reminiscent of Chandler's portrayal of Los Angeles. A quote from the Sunday Telegraph notes this: "Rankin captures like no one else, that strangeness that is Scotland at the end of the twentieth century." Rankin spoke on the appropriateness of Edinburgh: 

"Edinburgh is the perfect setting for crime writing. It has a split personality - on the one hand it is the city of history and museums and royalty, but at the same time there is this feeling that behind the thick walls of those Georgian townhouses there are all sorts of terrible things happening." 

It is a testament to Rankin's writing skills that he can pull off the grim and dark atmosphere while avoiding graphic and gory descriptions. Rankin's comment on this is: "I don't think you need to be graphic. In fact, I feel graphic violence is both lazy and salacious. You can allude to horror without sticking people's noses in it." Although an aversion to graphic scenes is a common attitude with many authors, it is not universal. Other authors, such as Derek Raymond and Joe Gores, have no qualms about using explicit violence, blood, and gore. Some, seeing the dark and brooding world that Rebus inhabits, would perhaps sense irony in Rankin's hesitance to depict the ugly scenes that must necessarily be a part of the detective's daily life. 

Ian Rankin, born in the Scottish town of Cardenden in 1960, has been a dedicated writer since he was 12 years old and wrote his own comic books and lyrics for an imaginary rock band. The lyrics were later morphed into prize winning poetry. At the University of Edinburgh he turned to short stories and continued to win awards. After obtaining an MA in English Literature, specializing in U.S. Literature, and while supposedly working towards a doctorate on the modern Scottish Novel from 1983 to 1986, he churned out three novels. The first one remains unpublished, but the second one was published in 1986 as THE FLOOD. 

The third one, published in 1987, is KNOTS AND CROSSES, and is the first in the popular Inspector John Rebus series. It's interesting to note that he did not consider KNOTS AND CROSSES a crime novel until he found the book in the mystery section of a bookstore and the Crime Writers' Association asked him if he wanted to join. At the time he wrote the book he was heavily into the literary theory of semiotics and deconstruction and he saw literature as being a puzzle or game between the reader and the author, but not a mystery. The book was not well-received and Rankin abandoned Rebus to write THE WATCHMAN (1990), a spy novel. 

He married in 1986 and moved to London, where his wife worked as a civil servant and Ian worked his way up in the well-known magazine Hi-Fi Review. Ian continued to write in his spare time, shuffling through the various genres like a deck of cards. He moved to France for a while but has since moved back to Edinburgh. He eventually worked his way back to the Rebus character, and has now produced over ten in the series. 

In 1992 Rankin won the Chandler-Fulbright Award, a prestigious prize for detective fiction funded by Raymond Chandler's estate. He came to the United States to accept the award and travelled over 14,000 in an old Volkswagon bus, visiting Seattle, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and New York City. In 1997 he won the Gold Dagger for his highly-praised novel BLACK AND BLUE, and in 1999 eight of the top ten Scottish bestsellers were his.

This review contributed by Michael Robison, AKA miker zspider, who is a contributing member of the 4MA group on Yahoo. 

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