Death Is Not the End by Ian Rankin

How much credence do you give to a dust jacket description of a book? Allow me to quote the cover flap description from Death Is Not the End:

For readers unfamiliar with the blistering plots and language of Ian Rankin’s longer works, this special edition novella is the perfect opportunity to get to know Rankin and his unforgettable creation, Inspector John Rebus. For long time Rebus fans, it is an opportunity to follow him as he explores a subplot from his most recent outing, Dead Souls. When his high-school sweetheart calls him out of the blue, Rebus agrees to track down her missing son, who was last seen at a bar owned by some shady mob-linked gangsters. His pursuit takes him through an Edinburgh beyond the tartan tearooms and cobbled streets of the tourist brochures, a modern city boasting a variety of criminals and their victims. As Rebus contemplates the lurking immortality of his own city, Rankin offers readers page-turning suspense and astonishing literary grace.

Understandable hyperbole aside, there are two problems with this description:

1) It is so complete a description of the plot that the actual story adds very little. Given that the novella is a mere 73 pages I understand that there is little room for complex plots, but I still found the story bland and uninspiring. The cover flap is meant to entice the reader, but in this case there is not much to be enticed into. The above description hits all of the major plot details except the ending which is anti-climatic at that; besides a few character sketches it is mostly the pondering of Inspector Rebus. Perhaps the rest of Rankin’s oeuvre has “page-turning suspense and astonishing literary grace” – and he comes highly recommended – but this little work offered didn’t suggest that to me.

2) Not only does the flap give away too much it also promises too much. I find it hard to believe that a mere 73 pages can offer “the perfect opportunity to get to know Rankin and his unforgettable creation, Inspector John Rebus.” I for one was not wowed enough to rush out and buy his previous works. To me this feels like what it really was: an initial draft of an idea in preparation for a full length novel. Some characters are introduced and the theme of vanishing, memory, and the past are touched on but the story really doesn’t have much power. Short stories and novellas require, in my opinion, either unique insight into some aspect of life or display a talent for writing – whether dialogue, or scene setting, or use of language, etc. – in order to draw the reader in, tell the story, and then wrap it up. None of the characters in this work are particularly memorable, the language wasn’t terribly imaginative or thought provoking, and the ideas touched on aren’t really developed. While the author obviously has some skills in evidence they don’t quite take off in this shortened version in my mind.

I could see a Rankin fan enjoying this work for a glimpse of the author in the short form and to see the inspiration for a latter work (Dead Souls), but I have a hard time seeing newcomers like myself get anything out of it but confusion at the glowing praise lavished on the author. Perhaps those who enjoy what one Amazon reviewer called “crisp, dark, atmospheric police procedurals set in Edinburgh” would enjoy the introduction to Inspector Rebus, but I was left cold.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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