- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

Come on, you never really thought the dark and dour Detective Inspector Rebus would fade into a scotch-laden sunset, did you?

Ian Rankin has been muttering about Rebus’ gloomy future for several books now, and (Little Brown,$24.99,432 pages) conjures up images of an obituary but it’s like prophesying the death of Dracula. It’s most unlikely Mr. Rankin will kill the inimitable Rebus, and nobody else can. So readers can expect to continue to wallow in the misery of Rebus, and enjoy it.

However, the suspense is reaching a new high this time, because Rebus is, in fact, teetering on the edge of retirement, being only a week away from the day that he dreads and the senior police officers he works for most likely long for.

He is a brilliant, intuitive investigator and there’s nothing he won’t do to get his man, especially Cafferty the gangster, but the combustible combination of his operative style and his personality would try anybody’s patience. His defiance of authority gets him suspended in the final days of his career, but he is predictably undeterred, and continues a clandestine operation with the aid of the long-suffering Siobhan Clarke who is expected to be his successor on the job. The plot involves the death of a Russian poet and an oddly coincidental meeting in Edinburgh of powerful Russian business executives, and of course Rebus puts two and two together and comes up with a messy four.

The proverbial last straw is the framing of Rebus for an attack on the gangster. Then Mr. Rankin tops himself with an ironic denouement involving the detective and the gangster that borders on farce. However, it all fulfills the Rebus gospel that “there should be mess… and fuss… and blood.”

And not to worry, of course he’ll be back. Retirement will offer him all kinds of opportunities for causing trouble.

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Don’t be discouraged by the fact that (Harcourt, $24, 272 pages), a mystery by Norwegian author Karin Fossum gets off to a familiar and predictable start with a frantic mother waiting for her 9-year-old daughter Ida to come home from an errand. She doesn’t, of course, and the police arrive in the formidable form of Inspector Sejer, a man of experience born of sadness. Like many law enforcement officers, he has seen too much too often and his memories live at the back of his mind.

What is different about this skillfully characterized plot is that nothing is quite what it seems and that includes Emil Johannes Mork, the damaged and frightened young man who has spoken only one word-“no”-in 50 years and now finds himself accused of killing a child. The finding of Ida’s body in a most unlikely place does not solve the mystery of how or why she died, and there is a terrible innocence to the sequence of events that enhances the tension and tragedy of the plot. Most dramatically drawn is Elsa, the mother of the sad young man, a woman who has always kept the secrets that shield her retarded son, despite her harsh treatment of him.

Most impressive is Ms. Fossum’s capacity to place the murdered child at the center of a social dilemma whose tentacles reach out to destroy the family structure around the child. Relationships crumble and collapse as the grim pieces of the puzzle of Ida’s death fall into place.

It is to Inspector Seger’s credit that his work has left him more compassionate than cynical. In his mind he mourns not only for the dead but for the survivors who are left to cope with the memories of what they have lived through. The unraveling of the mystery is more melancholy than melodramatic which may well be the way it is in terms of reality.

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

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