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Summary The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories:
Written by Ian Rankin – The Rebus revival continues with this volume of 29 tales, old and new, featuring the irascible Edinburgh detective. Having retired Rebus, Ian Rankin brought him back for a cold case in Standing in Another Man’s Grave in 2012 and then reinstated him to CID – albeit with a demotion – for last year’s Saints of the Shadow Bible. The stories in The Beat Goes On may be a stopgap for fans awaiting a 20th Rebus novel, but it’s a bountiful collection and also includes Rankin’s thoughtful essay on the making of his maverick detective.
The opening story, Dead and Buried, actually references events in the most recent novel and features a young Rebus when he was a CID newbie at Summerhall station in the mid-80s and still a married man. In fact, it’s not an old story but featured in a limited edition of Saints of the Shadow Bible. A prison yard exhumation of a convicted murderer hanged in 1963 introduces Rebus to the culture of corruption and the grisly nature of 60s justice (the prison hanging shed is still in “full working order should capital punishment make a comeback”).
Many of these stories featured in two previously published collections, A Good Hanging and Beggars Banquet. Rankin clearly enjoys the short form and has plenty of ideas that might not sustain a novel but are perfect for a witty, intriguing 20-page tale. He likes to play on the classics too. The Dean Curse has Rebus struggling with Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse when he’s called out to investigate a car bomb that targeted a shadowy ex-military man known as Brigadier-General Dean. A Three-Pint Problem, one of two brand new stories, is a Rebus-style nod to Sherlock Holmes’s three-pipe problems with the detective and his partner Siobhan Clarke in the Oxford Bar mulling over the mysterious email that made a car dealer apparently take flight.
Playback – presumably a nod to Chandler’s novel – shows its age as the case rests on a telephone answering machine. But even when the stories feel dated or slight (there are a few Christmas tales written for newspapers), Rebus is always enjoyable company for the reader if not for his colleagues. DS Brian Holmes often seems to resent the senior detective’s inability to share information about his methods. Rebus gets on better with DS Clarke and the chemistry Rankin creates between the pair makes the later stories a particular pleasure. The Very Last Drop takes them on a post-retirement tour of a Scottish brewery yet Rebus can’t stop himself sniffing out an old crime during the boozy outing.
Edinburgh is also a formidable presence and Rankin draws on the history and literature of his adopted city, as well as portraying the lives of its wealthy and destitute. Castle Dangerous focuses on the death of a retired QC who shares a name and knighthood with the Scottish historical novelist Sir Walter Scott. The old lawyer’s body is even found by the Scott Monument. Being Frank is a touching tale about a gentleman of the road. The Passenger, a new story, is inspired by Muriel Spark and is one of the more sinister in this collection.
My one complaint is the lack of contrast between these tales, which are all around 10 or 20 pages and have a tendency to blur into one another when read in quick succession. Many are clever and memorable, while a few are light-hearted and merely diverting. Perhaps it’s a book best dipped into when you’re missing the sharp-witted, curmudgeonly Scottish cop.
When Rankin does attempt a more ambitious story he pulls it off in style. Death is Not the End is a long, moving account of Rebus’s return home to Fife to help on a missing person case that has connections to his past. Another story called Sunday is concise yet skillfully hints at psychological turmoil below the surface during a lazy day for the cop in the aftermath of a shocking incident. It’s one of the many stories that makes this an essential volume for Rebus fan
Review The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories by reader:
Last year, after one of his friends died unexpectedly at a young age, Ian Rankin announced that he’d be taking a year or two off from novel writing to have a bit of a rest. I assume this collection of short stories has been issued to fill the void that many of us Rebus fans would have felt without a new book for the winter. And, since I haven’t read any of these before, it filled that void very satisfactorily.
There are 29 stories, ranging in length from a few pages to near-novella, but with most falling into the 20-40 minutes-to-read zone, so perfect bedside table material for late-night reading. There is also an interesting essay at the end where Rankin tells the story of how Rebus came into existence, which gives us some biographical snippets into how Rankin himself became a crime writer.
Normally, when reviewing a short story collection, I find myself commenting on the variable quality of the stories, but I really can’t say that with this one. I found each of the stories, short or long, to be pretty much equally good, and while they obviously don’t have the complexity or depth of the novels, they show all Rankin’s normal talents for plotting and characterisation, and are as well written as the books. In fact, because we know the main characters so well, Rankin doesn’t have to spend much time on developing them, allowing him to pack a lot of story into a compact space. A few of them have a Christmas or New Year theme, I guess because they were originally written for newspaper or magazine Christmas specials. And a couple make reference to stories from great Edinburgh writers of the past – Muriel Spark and Arthur Conan Doyle – giving a glimpse into Rankin’s own influences.
Each story is entirely consistent with the Rebus we know, but sometimes angled so that we see a new facet of his character, or get a closer look at an old one. They are spread throughout his career, with the first story being the most recently written – a prequel more or less to his latest novel Saints of the Shadow Bible, when Rebus was a new detective learning the ropes – right through to his retirement (which we now know didn’t last long). The bulk, however, are set in the earlier period, so there’s more of Brian Holmes as his sidekick than of Siobhan Clarke, who only came into the series mid-way through. I found this particularly pleasurable since it’s a long time since I’ve read any of the older books and I enjoyed the trip down memory lane with a younger Rebus. I was intrigued to realise that, although I tend to think back on the early Rebus as one of the drunken mavericks of his day who has since mellowed with age, in fact in comparison to a lot of today’s detectives he was actually both functional and professional throughout – clearly it’s the genre that’s shifted, rather than Rebus…or Rankin. I also felt there was more than a touch of William McIlvanney in the earlier stories, but that his influence seemed to fade as they went on, presumably as Rankin developed into his own equally strong style.
The stories include all kinds of mysteries, from shop-lifting to murder, and the occasional one is really more an observation of a particular aspect of Edinburgh life than a crime story. In total, they left me in no doubt that Rankin is just as much a master of the short story as the novel. I found this a completely satisfying collection, and one that I’m sure to dip in and out of many times again.
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