Thursday, May 14, 2009

(No.27) Airplane Reading

Since the Scotttish writer Ian Rankin first created the character of the depressed, dyspeptic and rebellious Edinburgh detective inspector John Rebus, the long running series (18 books in all) has set the standard both for this genre and for demonstrating yet again that 'crime' novels can be well written. The Rebus books move chronologically through time and the characters' lives; this DI is one detective who is not fixed in amber like a never aging bee. Rankin's novels have gone from strength to strength.

Now Rankin has written his first novel since he had Rebus retire from the force: Doors Open (Orion). Sans John Rebus I wish I could say this latest novel is of the same quality. It is not. It can best be described as a 'robbery/caper' story involving stolen art and set in Edinburgh. It is a good story but suffers in comparison with Rankin's Rebus novels.

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Andrew Vachss is an American crime novelist whose main running character, a tough ex-con named Burke, inhabits a rather dark and gritty world and associates with a strange collection of people in an informal 'family' of criminals and shady fellow travellers. 

Two Trains Running (Vintage) is a novel that, like Rankin's, departs from his series of 20 books mostly with Burke as the lead. Set a in small mid-western American city in 1959 it features a hired killer named Walker Dett retained by a local hillbilly crime boss as part of his effort to fend off incursions into his territory by the Mafia and also by American-Irish elements of the IRA working for the election of John F. Kennedy. Offbeat but interesting.

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Quinton Jardine is a journeyman novelist but one who is both prolific and successful. One of his series (he has two) involves the Edinburgh police department and particularly a cop named Bob Skinner who rises over several books to become second in command. The series also features several of his police subordinates and their private lives -- as well as his. 

Death's Door (Headline) is another  interesting instalment in the Bob Skinner series although neither as dark nor as well-written as Rankin's Rebus in the Edinburgh CID. Indeed if it were not for the named setting one might never know it was the same city in terms of its mood and atmosphere or indeed the same police department. 

In this novel the focus is on catching a serial killer and Skinner does not appear until the second half of the book after much back and forth activity by his colleagues (Skinner is on leave). This novel is not the least of the series (this is the 17th) and is good airplane reading.

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Lee Child is an Englishman now living and writing in the US who has created a series character named Jack Reacher. Just lately both Child and his character seem to have become fashionable in certain circles. For example I have read just recently highly favourable references to Child and his Reacher novels by Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian best selling author who lives in New York and comes from Elmira Ontario, and by Adrienne Clarkson, Canada's former Governor-General and a literary lioness of sorts herself.

In the Reacher books, 12 so far, the plots seem to me to have become less realistic recently. Reacher is a former US Army major in the military police who left the army after a dozen years or so and became a wanderer with no agenda or plan and carrying nothing but a toothbrush and -- lately -- his passport and an ATM card. His wanderings take him into circumstances in which his martial skills (and he is a large man anyway) are tested and used to deadly effect. 

Nothing To Lose (Dell) sees Reacher going back and forth between safety and danger represented by 2 small towns 12 miles apart in rural Colorado called Hope and Despair. While the premises of this book seem more contrived than previously, Reacher -- certainly not a conventional hero or even particularly likable -- emerges at the conclusion to continue his wandering. Worth reading.


Alastair Rickard

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca