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Older and grumpier: A Song for the Dark Times, by Ian Rankin, reviewed

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

A Song for the Dark Times Ian Rankin

Transworld, pp.336, 20

By my reckoning, this is the 24th outing for John Rebus, Scotland’s best known retired police officer. One of the many pleasures of the series is that Rebus ages in real time. COPD now makes climbing stairs an increasing problem, so he and his dog Brillo are in the throes of moving to a downstairs flat.

DCI Siobhan Clarke, his former colleague, has turned up to lend a hand. She’s distracted by the murder of a wealthy Saudi student, who soon turns out not to be wealthy at all. Nevertheless, he had recently promised to invest £10 million in a real-estate development 250 miles from Edinburgh near the north coast of Scotland.

On his first night in the new flat, Rebus is woken by a phone call from Samantha, his not-quite-estranged daughter, who happens to live near the proposed development. Her partner has disappeared. Rebus drives up in his ailing Saab, which is also ageing in real time.


The narrative switches between these two semi-detached elements. Owing to shadowy political ramifications, Clarke is obliged to work with the ambitious DCI Malcolm Fox, another well-established series character, in an investigation that involves a missing peer, his ruthless daughter, an Italian playboy, a mildly sleazy politician-turned-property developer and a sinister club owner with profitable sidelines in drugs and blackmail.

Meanwhile, Rebus tracks down the partner’s corpse to a former PoW camp nearby, cheek-by-jowl with the local commune, which is also the home of Samantha’s former lover. They are both on land affected by the proposed property development. To the dismay of the local CID, Rebus mounts an unofficial murder investigation, though he’s unconvinced of his daughter’s innocence. (As a consequence, she throws him out of the house, but fortunately the pub landlady takes him in.)

‘I’ve learned that coincidences are as rare as unicorns,’ Rebus observes around half way through. This must surely be taken as ironic, since it’s coincidence that binds together the two strands of the plot. Not that it matters in the slightest. As in so much good crime fiction, the crimes in this novel are, in a sense, incidental. Fans of the series, of which I’m one, are mainly interested in the ever grumpier, ever more decaying Rebus, in the pleasingly nuanced characters, and in Rankin’s wry slant on the world around us.

I can’t wait to see how Rebus deals with Covid and Brexit. In the meantime, expect to see this novel in a great many Christmas stockings.

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