Published by Little, Brown, and Company
Review by W. R. Greer
It's intimidating to pick up a book that's not the first in a series. There's the fear of not understanding the back stories of the characters or the references to previous books, because as hard as the author might try, there are important aspects to the story or hero that might be missing for the new reader. It's even more intimidating when it's the 16th novel in the series. While in a small airport and looking for a book to read, I came across Ian Rankin's A Question of Blood. I knew Ian Rankin was the best selling mystery writer in the United Kingdom, so I decided to take a chance and bought the book. I made the right choice.
For those who are long time readers of Ian Rankin's John Rebus series, this review won't be able to tell you how this novel fits into the series, how more of Rebus' character unravels to the reader, or how Ian Rankin's style or thematic structure has changed over time. For those of you who have yet to read anything by Ian Rankin, this novel stands on its own and is engrossing and suspenseful in its own right.
John Rebus is a Detective Inspector in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's in his fifties, drinks too much, smokes too much, has no real family, hates authority, disrespects the rules, and is not far from cracking under the pressure. This is why many of his colleagues assume he's capable of murder. At the beginning of A Question of Blood, Rebus is in the hospital with burnt hands. His partner, Siobhan Clarke, was being stalked by a burglar named Martin Fairstone. The night Rebus burned his hands, Fairstone burned to death in his house and the last person to be seen with him was Rebus.
The next day, a man walks into a school and shoots three students, killing two of them, before taking his own life. Rebus is assigned to help with the case, and he discovers that one of the victims is his cousin, although Rebus hasn't seen the boy or his family in years. The only mysteries concerning the school tragedy is why the killer snapped and if the boys he attacked were random targets or chosen specifically for his crime. It brings back memories for the police and community of the 1996 Dunblane school massacre, and the surviving victim's father is an MP who uses the shooting to generate publicity for him and his gun control initiatives. The gunman is a military veteran who had recently resigned from the SAS (Special Air Services), an elite unit where the men are taught to be violent extensions of the government's will. These are also men who typically have trouble adjusting to life as a private citizen once they leave the service. John Rebus was once an SAS aspirant, but he failed their psychological testing.
Rebus should have removed himself from the case once he found out his cousin was a victim. As a murder suspect in the Faircloth case, he may be suspended from the police department at any time. With his burnt hands, he can't drive or even light his own cigarettes. Rebus, along with Siobhan Clarke, dig into the gunman's background and they're hounded by military investigators from the SAS. Rebus and Clarke decide that it's best to keep much of what they know to themselves, since they're not sure who to trust or who will believe them anymore. Their investigation finds a goth subculture, teenage street gangs, smuggling, illicit relationships, multiple SAS connections, drugs, distant parents, disaffected children, web cams, and government secrets. There are concurrent storylines about the gunman, the Faircloth murder, small time criminals who sell legal gun replicas, Rebus' friend who left the force because of stress, and Rebus' distant family connections. Although Ian Rankin has created a vivid portrait of his native Edinburgh, Rebus tends to see only its dark corners. It's both the nature of the job and part of Rebus' personality, which is one of the reasons he's so aptly suited for police work.
Ian Rankin juggles all these different storylines and multiple characters expertly. There's no blurring of characters where it's necessary to flip back through the book to figure out who they are. Rebus can be unlikable, antisocial, and he never quite becomes a sympathetic character, because the last thing Rebus wants is sympathy, but he is an insightful and resourceful detective. His scars and tough skin belie the caring he does have for the important people in his life. While Rebus investigates the cases, many of the circumstances revolve around broken or dysfunctional families. Rebus is divorced, distant from his only daughter, and has difficulty connecting with his dead cousin's family. It is his partners and colleagues who are close to him that have become his family. This is why those who know him can believe that he killed Faircloth to protect Siobhan.
A Question of Blood revolves around not just the blood at the crime scene which will eventually unravel many of the mysteries, but of the blood that should tie families together. By discovering one of his own family a victim of a senseless crime, Rebus must confront his own lack of family ties and wonder about the inner forces that push him forward every day. John Rebus understands a world where small sins and omissions, either personal or criminal, can multiply rapidly until an unspeakable crime occurs. Rebus eventually puts together the sequence of circumstances that led to the school shooting, and the uneasiness comes from the familiarity of it all.
Having finished A Question of Blood, I understand the success of the John Rebus series and admire the skill which Ian Rankin draws this hardened and cynical man. In doing so, he explores that part of John Rebus that exists in all of us and the petty crimes and personal failings that can make the world full of dark corners. A Question of Blood succeeds not just as a mystery, but as an understanding of the forces that can undermine a man and his world.
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