Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

“Different times, different rules, isn’t that right?”

Ian Rankin’s long-running Inspector Rebus series came in for its share of criticism in the last few years. Even long-term fans called for Rebus’s retirement, but this latest well-plotted novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible shows Rebus and his creator in excellent form. Exit Music, the 17th inspector Rebus novel depicted the last few days before his retirement. After the beginning of a new series featuring Malcolm Fox, Rebus returned  to the Cold Crimes Unit, “a bunch of old hands itching for answers,” in the 18th novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave.  Long-term fans know that Rebus had no life outside of police work, so it’s no wonder he couldn’t let go of the badge.

saintsIn Saints of the Shadow Bible, the 19th Rebus novel, DS Rebus (demoted when he applied to rejoin the force), “back in CID on sufferance,” along with Siobhan Clarke are out on a seemingly simple car accident report which occurred in the “Badlands” of West Lothian. It’s a standard one-car accident, and the only thing that seems a little out-of-order is the driver’s boot in the passenger side. The driver is the daughter of a very wealthy London businessman whose unsavoury reputation and influence at the Met follow him all the way to Scotland. There’s something about the accident that gnaws at Rebus, but a few questions lead nowhere and “he realized the case was disappearing.”

Rebus and Siobhan are both pulled from the car accident investigation when a prominent politician is found dead in his home. Is it murder or an accident? Clues hint at B &E, but since the dead man’s home is close to the car accident, Rebus can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection.

While these investigations continue, Rebus is hauled in by Malcolm Fox of The Complaints (the Scottish equivalent of Internal Affairs) to investigate a crime committed over 30 years ago when Rebus had just joined the force. The Scottish Police force is in a state of flux, and the “eight regional Scottish forces were soon to be amalgamated into something called Police Scotland,” and thanks to the changes in the double jeopardy law, the file on the beating death is reopened due to pressure from the Solicitor General. The crime goes back to the 80s and involves the Summerhall police, specifically a tight-knit group of men who called themselves The Saints of the Shadow Bible. According to Rebus, if you were at the Summerhall station, you were a Saint, and Rebus argues that it was not sinister but a fairly innocent group identification that boiled down to a tape playing by “The Skids singing ‘The Saints Are Coming’ ” when they went out on a call (think Apocalypse Now’s The Ride of the Valkyries). The Summerhall “cop shop” no longer exists, but Fox is reopening a case from thirty years before when Saunders, a Summerhall snitch allegedly beat a “scumbag” to death. The case “collapsed” in  court due to evidence tampering or police incompetence depending on who you ask. Of the handful of the Saints that were involved in the case, one is dead, one is dying, another is a wealthy man who left the force in disgrace, another is retired, and that leaves Rebus alive, kicking and still with a badge.

Rebus is questioned by Fox and while it’s clear that he wasn’t involved in the cover-up/evidence tampering, he was deeply involved with the Saints and knows many of the group’s secrets. The big question is: whose side is he on? He feels loyalty to the remaining saints and yet if there is a dirty copper amongst them, should he cover for his former pals? When the stakes are raised and a few bodies are lifted from watery graves, Rebus’s dilemma sharpens as loyalties become increasingly complicated. According to Rebus, digging into the shady procedural past of the Summerhall cops “would be like giving a cow a machine gun–bullets could go anywhere,” yet he plays both sides of the game–assisting Fox with the investigation and simultaneously informing the Saints about the progress in the case.

Saints of the Shadow Bible is set against the backdrop of a divided Scotland and the debate whether or not to seek independence from Britain. The political situation doesn’t help matters as Rebus’s various suspects fall on both sides of the debate, and one of the Saints is convinced that he’s being targeted because of his political position.

The novel’s strength comes from the intensity of the relationships between its characters, sharp dialogue, the depiction of divided loyalties, the cat-and-mouse game between Rebus and his Fox, and the idea that while we may not be the same people that we were 30 years ago, that doesn’t stop us from being held accountable. Malcolm Fox and Rebus make perfect foils for one another. Rebus has a drinking problem but is managing to keep it under control; Fox is an alcoholic who has abandoned his destructive addiction and leads a life of culinary aestheticism which is in complete contrast to Rebus’s greasy diet and poor physical condition. Here’s Siobhan Clarke and Rebus on the subject of the old Summerhall days:

She leaned forward on the sofa. “And is there anything for him  to find? Anything that’s going to end up incriminating you?”

Rebus considered this. “If he looks hard enough, there might be a skeleton or two. Thing is, a lot of the supporting cast have left the stage–gone walkies or been fitted for the wooden suit. So while he might find stuff, he’ll have the devil’s own job making it stick.

Clarke was staring at him. “How dirty was Summerhall?”

He studied the surface of his tea. “Dirty enough. You ever see that program Life on Mars? If felt like a documentary…”

“Beating a confession out of someone? Planting evidence? Making sure the bad guys got done for something?”
“You thinking of writing my biography?”

Rebus is full of his usual acerbic wit, and keeps his cards close to his chest as he tries to discover the truth about what happened with the Saints thirty years before. At one point, Rebus and Siobhan are discussing politics and she argues that voting can give an opportunity for a “fresh start.” Rebus replies:

“Thing about fresh starts, though, Siobhan…”

“What?”
“They usually turn out to be the same old in disguise.”

And we see he’s right. This investigation into a decades old-crime is no accident and certainly politically motivated. Everyone here is under pressure. Fox is being moved out of the Complaints back into a police force that views him as an enemy. Rebus, juggling an investigation into events in the 80s and a case in the present, wants to stay in the force, but will there be a place for him?

Rebus is a loose cannon; he’s off the sale; you can’t trust him; he’s past his sell-by.

Rebus appears, in one sense, like a relic of how investigations used to be conducted–along with questionable methods. But Rebus has survived by no mere accident, and this is shown by his ability to cross worlds as he deals with the Saints and also digs into the past with Malcolm Fox. Rebus’s complex morality was never murkier. He refuses to pick a side and as always, plays his own game by his own rules. As Rebus says, “I’m from the eighties, …, I’m not the new-fangled touchy-feely model. Now get out of my fucking car!”

Review copy.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

  1. I’ve heard this is a return to form – although to be honest I always find Rankin a notch above the run of the mill even when he is not at his best.

  2. acommonreaderuk

    Ah yes, retired detectives coming back to help out – isn’t there a tv series with something along those lines? It’s becoming a bit of a trope isn’t it (have I really used that word?).

    I think it’s nearly impossible for writers like Ian Rankin to write a bad book. Whatever you think of crime novels (I love them), no-one can deny that it takes a very skilful writer to manage a long investigation convincingly. Peter James down here in Brighton also does a consistently good job.

  3. Brian Joseph

    There is something really nice about these long running series. I think that they are almost a comfort to the reader. Though it is unfortunate that inevitably some decline over time as you indicated that this one had. It is really nice when they bounce back.

  4. I’ve only read the first and then stopped but I think I remember Max said, the series picks up later on. This sounds like a good one but I think I’ll read him in order, should I ever read another one (which I intend to do). I find the idea of a retired cop looking into cold cases is very realistic.

    • I’ve read some of the early ones and some of the later ones, and I have to say that Rebus is in top form here. Yes, retired police would be good at cold case crime, you’d think. The cases would no longer be a priority so you could set someone on them. The Jussi Adler Olsen Department Q novels are also cold crime cases.

  5. I had no idea he’d brought Rebus back.

    For me the better ones explore issues of Scottish culture and politics, as this one does. It sounds like Rankin was refreshed after taking a break from the series. Good to know.

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