- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2011

By Ian Rankin
Little Brown, $24.99
448 pages

There is an old saying about setting a thief to catch a thief, but in the case of “The Complaints,” Ian Rankin has done something more risky by having straight cops chase corrupt cops.

As his aptly named detective Malcolm Fox discovers, the problem remains even more painful because of the need for certainty that the straight cops are straight before they are set on the track of those who are not. As is demonstrated here, the so-called “dark side” of a police force is no less dangerous than those whom it investigates.

In many respects, Fox is a more intriguing character than Mr. Rankin’s legendary detective John Rebus, whose psychological gloom combined with his weakness for liquor had rendered him a little tiresome, as perhaps his creator was the first to notice. Fox is an equally fragile yet reformed alcoholic, and like most of his breed, he misses drinking. Yet he has imposed on himself a discipline that is a mixture of morality and cunning.

He is a member of Complaints and Conduct, an exclusive group of veterans who investigate other police for crimes including corruption and pedophilia as a bizarre expansion of their work as lawmen.

Unlike Rebus, Fox is a man who doesn’t hide behind his weaknesses, nor does he apologize for them. He is divorced yet without the bleak hopelessness that permeated Rebus’ relationships. He has a life outside his work, although what he does is a controlling factor. Fox worries about his father, whom he has placed in an upscale nursing home, and about his sister Jude, who has the kind of taste in men that gets her arm broken by her lover and sends her back to the bottle for consolation.

Nevertheless, there is a certain apathy to Fox that is reflected in his behavior and in the way he handles his job. He is good at it, and he likes it because he is good at it, although he is uncomfortably aware of what can go wrong in work that depends on the most basic of trust.

As Mr. Rankin notes, “[A] lot of cops asked the Complaints the same question: How can you do it? How can you spit on your own kind? These were officers you’d worked with, or might work with in the future. These were, it was often said, the ‘good guys.’ But that was the problem right there - what did it mean to be ‘good?’ “

Fox keeps in mind the observation of his boss, Chief Inspector Bob McEwan, that “I’ve got friends nowhere, and that’s just the way I like it.”

There are few whom lawmen trust and even fewer for those always on the hunt for weaknesses within their own kind. In Fox’s latest case, he is probing one of the grimmest of crimes in a colleague suspected of dabbling in child abuse. It makes it more difficult that the colleague is Jamie Breck, an old friend of Fox’s and that Breck is more conscious of what is going on than Fox realizes.

The problems proliferate when Fox himself becomes a suspect in the murder of his sister’s brutal lover, and he discovers to his cost just how much the Complaints department is detested by other members of the police force.

Meantime, Fox has developed what with him comes close to a romantic interest in a young woman in another police department, and it is significant and characteristic that one of his first moves is to check on her personal background. There is a scabrous background plot involving gangsters and a casino, and Fox becomes a victim of a revenge attack. Yet the focus of the book is not on criminals beating up themselves and the cops.

Mr. Rankin, as he usually does, develops a dark relationship between Fox and a mobster in the interest of solving what turns out to be a far more complex situation that deeply involves the Complaints and how and by whom it is run. That is where the trust comes in, and Fox has to learn a few more lessons in his strange craft before it becomes clear whom he can depend on and why.

Some of the developments smack of an espionage plot, as the unlikely and the unpleasant turn into the kind of truth that is difficult for even the Complaints to accept and assimilate. It will be surprising if Fox does not become as fascinating a character as John Rebus ever was, and perhaps a good deal more tolerable.

He isn’t as sorry for himself as Rebus was, and his flaws are more understandable, especially given the kind of work he does. The Complaints is an intriguing place, and it will be surprising if Malcolm Fox doesn’t outfox John Rebus in the years ahead. Mr. Rankin may have killed off his star, but he seems to have spawned another, far more sophisticated character.

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

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