- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 1, 2007

To call Scottish detective John Rebus “dour” vastly understates the case. It is true that dourness may be a Scottish trait, but few have achieved the darkness of mind in which Rebus dwells.

With each successive book, the star of Ian Rankin’s crime saga has become more doom laden. Rebus occupies a dark world of bitter and apparently ineradicable memories of what he has done wrong and how he has been done wrong. If things get much worse, the author may have to give him a magnificent funeral in the midst of which, running true to form, his character may rise defiantly from the grave.

“The Naming of the Dead” is aptly titled, leaving the impression that Rebus may be among the dead not yet named. Even Siobhan, his partner, prodigy and possible romantic interest — after all, he did kiss her once in a moment of crisis — seems to be absorbing many of her mentor’s gloomiest characteristics. However, she seems to know it.

At one point, she thinks, “I’m owed a private life, an evening off.”

Otherwise, she worries that she’ll become just like Rebus — “obsessed and sidelined; cranky and mistrusted.” Assessing her own state of mind, Siobhan reflects that she wants to do her job well but to be able to switch off now and again, that she “wanted a life outside her job, rather than a job that became her life.” And she faces up to what has become of the man she so admires:

Rebus had lost family and friends, pushing them aside in favor of corpses and con-men, killers, petty thieves, rapists, thugs, racketeers and racists. When he went out drinking he did so on his own, standing quietly at the bar … He had no hobbies, didn’t follow any sports, never took a vacation. If he had a week off, she could find him at the Oxford Bar, pretending to read the paper in a corner or staring dully at daytime TV. She wanted more.”

The current Rebus saga has him mixing it up with terrorists and a serial killer in a tangled plot that involves world leaders arriving in Scotland for an economic summit that has attracted the attention of the usual corps of shrieking demonstrators who hate anyone who fails to share their entrenched prejudices.

Rebus is in trouble with the police hierarchy, which appears to be a permanent state of his professional life. While the man is a formidable investigator, his dark and brooding personality has to make him a challenge to anyone charged with the task of controlling him.

The trouble is that Rebus slouches to a dirge that bagpipes play in his mind, and if achieving his goals means dealing with a gangster like “Big Ger,” then that’s the way it is. Yet he is shocked when the less hardened Siobhan proves too ready to assume his philosophy of life.

Some readers may feel that this book could have been wound up long before it reached 452 pages, in the course of which even Rebus and his spectacular consumption of Scotch can become repetitive. He is on a mission of misery between the police precinct and his bleak tenement flat, and it’s a familiar route. If Rebus was ever happy or contented, it was long ago and he has settled into a puddle of guilt about his life and how he has failed at marriage and successive relationships.

He displays an apparently uncontrollable inclination toward defiance that has all but wrecked his professional life, and perhaps the worst of that is that the last person he tends to blame is himself. Again, it is Siobhan, realistic yet reluctant in her feelings toward him, who acknowledges that Rebus “wouldn’t rest until his demons had been quelled. Yet each victory was fleeting and each fight drained him a little more.”

As the detectives stand in the midst of the demonstration, listening to the reading aloud of the names of a thousand victims of the war in Iraq, Siobhan realizes, “This is what she did, her whole working life. She named the dead. She recorded their last details and tried to find out who they’d been and why they’d died. A world filled with victims, waiting for her and other detectives like her. Detectives like Rebus who gnawed away at every case, or let it gnaw at them. Never letting go because that would have been the final insult to those names.”

As the grim chronicle of John Rebus trudges on, it becomes increasingly clear that while Siobhan has absorbed the lessons and the knowledge he has bestowed on her, she realizes that he has removed himself from even the guise of a normal lifestyle. She also leaves the impression that she ultimately may be forced to conclude that the world of Rebus is too close to death in life for her to accept it.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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