Saturday, October 20, 2012

Quiz show

I first used the Internet when I went to work for a small college in 1997, and was exposed to that annoying pop-up in the lower right corner telling you that you had a new message. (That has not gotten any less annoying, or distracting.)  I went online personally two years later in order to go to graduate school. Which puts me roughly on a par with Detective Siobhan Clarke, a forward-thinking, ambitious copper who has to borrow a "laptop" (one can only imagine its size) in order to help solve the disappearance of a young co-ed in Ian Rankin's 13th mystery featuring the irascible Edinburgh detective John Rebus, The Falls, first published in 2001.  There are two curious things about this novel: the novelty of computers and the Internet (which occasionally makes it feel like it's talking about the Model T) and the mention by several reviewers that this was going to be Rankin's "break-out" novel.

Rebus' force, the Lothian and Borders, is called out en masse when Philippa Balfour, the only child of a wealthy Edinburgh banker, vanishes from her posh apartment. Siobhan nabs Flip's computer and soon discovers that Flip had been playing a mysterious online cryptic-puzzle-solving game run by an email correspondent calling him/herself the Quizmaster (to a 2010s era reader, this game could just as easily been played through snail mail, but then where would the plot be?).  She initially adopts Flip's screen persona and continues to play the game in hopes of discovering what happened to Flip.

In the meantime, the alternately despised or feared Rebus (who is/was a maverick long before one Sarah Palin coopted the term) is headed off in another direction (as he is wont to do) and discovers a miniature coffin -- occupied by an equally small human figure -- hidden in the open near Flip's parents' country estate.  He quickly links this coffin to others that have been located in proximity to other unsolved deaths or disappearances, and wonders if these are somehow connected to a collection of them on exhibit in the National Museum of Scotland. Scholars suspect that these coffins may be related to two 19th century murderers, Burke and Hare, who were accused of collecting cadavers for sale to physicians for dissecting purposes.  Do you think we have strayed far from the disappearance of Flip Balfour ... so does everyone else on the case, except for John Rebus. Guess who's right?

I have liked Ian Rankin's Rebus books from the beginning (no break-out necessary for me ... except that I'm 10-years behind his publishing pace). This was the first one I'd read since visiting Edinburgh in 2010 and that's one of the things I've really enjoyed about them over the years -- they have such a strong sense of place. Rebus' Edinburgh is smoky and dank -- just the place for the likes of the Burke and Hare, and their more modern murderous counterparts. On the other hand, John Rebus would never be a friend of mine -- he's far too moody and unpredictable, never lets the facts get in the way of a little witness intimidation, has little respect for his idiot superiors (who aren't really idiots), and ... oy, the drinking. This is a man who doesn't give a damn that it's not 5 o'clock somewhere.

Siobhan is the only copper who really respects him, but even she is juggling her fondness for him with her need to distance herself for her own promotional prospects. And they are just two of Rankin's cast of complex and conflicted characters. For Rankin, it seems, solving the puzzle is not the critical piece of his work -- he likes the atmosphere and his all-too-human characters. I like this in a lot of the mysteries I read, but I can't take a steady diet of this form.  I'll stick with Rebus, though, if for no other reason than to find out what the hell eventually happens to him!

A completely unfamiliar narrator (I'm thinking that he's a regular for a British publisher who just got repackaged for us Yanks) reads The Falls: Samuel Gillies. He reads simply and without either drama or exaggerated characterization, it's just fine. I don't know how you listen, but I find myself spelling proper names in my head when I hear them which often can help me remember who's who; and in many cases here, I couldn't take a consistent stab at spelling many of them. I really believe that's my American ear, though. There was no problem following dialogue or the plot, so that ends up an exceedingly minor quibble.  I am glad to now know that Rebus ex-lover, current boss/nemesis Gill Templar is a "jill." (However, the narrator's name is pronounced with the hard 'g.')  And just as a personal preference, Gillies' Scotsmen (and women) weren't Scots enough -- their lilting burrs were quite subtle for the most part (and probably perfectly acceptable for most listeners).

A peek at Rankin's website reveals that he's pulled an Arthur Conan Doyle (kind of) -- his latest book resurrects Rebus (put to bed, I thought, in 2008's Exit Music), and connects him with Rankin's newer detective, Malcolm Fox. When I listened to the Fox book a year ago, it made sense to me then that these two men would somehow meet (and that it wouldn't be pretty) and I guess that day has come.

[The photograph of the tiny coffins found on Arthur's Seat in 1836 was retrieved from National Museum of Scotland's website.]

The Falls by Ian Rankin
Narrated by Samuel Gillies
Recorded Books, 2008.  16:45

No comments: