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hide and seek

8 november 2012

I've started Ian Rankin's Rebus series quite innocent of how it would develop over many novels in the 20+ years it's subsequently lasted. So my remarks have to be seen as an exercise of sorts in DIY time-travel. Transported back into the situation of someone just discovering that a not-yet-super-famous crime novelist even exists, I am trying to replicate how readers came to him fresh in the early 1990s.

Hide and Seek is the second in the series, and the second that I've read. Two points determine a line, though, and paired with the first Rebus novel Knots and Crosses, Hide and Seek defines a kind of formula determined by two texts. In both novels, the action starts slow, with plenty of character development and rich local color. In both, it proceeds to tumble out of control, revealing a dark side to an elegant, hip city that seems built over endless Lovecraftian dungeons.

Of course, many crime novels start slow and spin out of control: the formula is much older than Rankin. Though it's not typical of procedurals or policiers, the pattern of a tug on the fabric that unravels a noisome warp and weft is standard in the private-eye novel, a central theme of Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald. The fact that Rebus happens to be a cop – indeed, in Hide and Seek, promoted to the august rank of Detective Inspector – doesn't mean that he can't approach crime, and life, like the hardest-boiled private eye this side of Santa Teresa.

In fact, Hide and Seek uses a device similar to that of many private-eye novels: the crime that doesn't seem like one. The death of a young man in an Edinburgh "flop" appears to be a suicide or an accidental overdose; there's no reason to suspect murder, unless you've read too many crime novels. Something about the case bothers Rebus, though. Too many people are interested in it. Too many things have been moved at the crime scene; the resulting disorder is not entropic enough. Too many people he meets in the course of the routine investigation seem to be related or in cahoots or concealing deadly secrets. So he starts to investigate off the books, just like any good PI would.

Rebus is even more unlikable in Hide and Seek than in Knots and Crosses, and that nastiness is part of his fascination. Perversely, readers don't identify well, especially in crime fiction, with heroes. Even the mildest of medium-boiled protagonists (Kinsey Millhone, for example) require some foibles if we're to enlist in their cause. Rebus has almost too many. In particular, he is cruel to subordinates, who in turn resent and resist him. If it were not for the third-person narrator's complete openness about Rebus's disagreeableness, you'd quit reading. As it is, he's a train wreck, and not a lovable train wreck like Salvo Montalbano, but a vicious and conceited train wreck. Subsequent police fiction has given us worse characters, and masters like James Ellroy often give us no policemen to admire at all. Rebus, though, unless he tidies up a bit, would have to be among the nastiest heroes to carry a long series of novels.

Rankin, Ian. Hide and Seek. 1990. New York: St. Martin's, 1997.