What better time to read Ian Rankin’s latest novel than the early days of the new year? Crack open a can of Slim Fast and settle back with a good book.
Fleshmarket Alley is a John Rebus novel; if you’re a Rebus fan, you know what to expect by now. Those readers new to the series shouldn’t be daunted.
The discovery of skeletal remains in an Edinburgh alley comes on the same day as a violent murder in a housing project known as Knoxland. Siobhan Clarke, Rebus’ sidekick, is assigned to the skeletons; she’s also concerned about a missing girl, the sister of a rape victim who subsequently killed herself.
These events form the book’s principle threads; when it’s learned that the skeletons were stolen from the forensics lab at a local university, the cops can only scratch their heads. Rebus is more concerned about the stabbing death of a Turkish journalist. The victim’s family lives in official limbo at a detetention center, where asylum seekers are held awaiting disposition of their status as political refugees.
Gradually the novel’s many threads are woven together in a skillful narrative; if Ian Rankin has an axe to grind about the UK’s immigration practices, that’s okay, but the author intrusion threatens to sink the narrative flow of the novel. The line between social criticism and telling a good story is often ignored by writers seeking to persuade readers to a point of view. Charles Dickens was a master at this technique; I can’t think of many authors who’ve pulled it off recently.
The plot’s complexity heightens a sense of moody elegance that infuses the story. Each revelation exposes the characters to uncomfortable truths about racism, bureaucracy, and the faceless victims of exploitation. At times the reader might feel they’ve won a trip to Ottawa in mid-January; it’s gray and cold, and the prospect of spring thaw seems distant. Rebus and Siobhan clear their cases, brush closer to one another than in the past, but the world weary duo lack the energy of previous novels.
Ian Rankin is certainly one of the better crime fiction writers working today. Fleshmarket Alley is a good book, more introspective than most, and well-written. It will be interesting to see where he takes Rebus and Siobhan after this one.