Monday, February 25, 2013

Standing In Another Man's Grave - Ian Rankin

I originally reviewed Standing in Another Man's Grave for Shelf Awareness in January. You can see that starred (yay) review here. However, instead of just reposting that review, I wanted to elaborate a bit more than I'm able to in Shelf Awareness, so it's a little different this time....

First line: "He'd made sure he wasn't standing too near the open grave."

Five years after retiring, John Rebus is working with the Serious Crime Review Unit. Rebus is clearly unhappy behind a desk; he's a detective at heart and having that taken away from him by forced retirement has left him with a hole in his life.

Meanwhile, the Scottish police have changed the retirement standards due to the loss of too much experience and the expense of the pensions. So Rebus is considering the option of applying to rejoin the force.

In the midst of the internal conflict for Rebus, Nina Hazlitt shows up at the SCRU looking for the former director DI Magrath. Since Magrath retired several years back, Rebus meets with Hazlitt. She had shared her theories with Magrath about a serial kidnapper targeting woman along the A9 highway and now another woman has gone missing in similar circumstances. Hazlitt took up a crusade on her theory because she believes the first victim was her daughter Sally.

Rebus agrees to take a look at the various disappearances which leads him directly to the new case and its investigative team including his friend Siobhan Clarke. Rebus begins to see some truth in Hazlitt's theory and the more he digs, the more he's convinced she's right--at least mostly right. But his maverick ways are ruffling feathers and he may "get the boot" from the investigation before he can "get his guy."

Standing in Another Man's Grave was dedicated to Jackie Leven, Rankin's good friend who died unexpectedly from cancer in 2011. The title is derived from a mondegreen (mis-heard lyrics) of Leven's song "Standing in Another Man's Rain." Rankin had thought for years that the song was Rain, not Grave. And he carries that title into the themes and symbolism of the novel.

In addition, the novel is divided into six parts, and Rankin opens each part with tie-in lyrics from a Leven song, lyrics that not only enrich the part but set the part's tone, like:

"A man disappears down bar steps
With a piece of wounded sky..."

or

"I see the dead men shuffling in their bones
Young girls laughing on their mobile phones..."

Tone and atmosphere permeate the entire novel; from the start, Rebus is attending the funeral of a friend, who died unexpectedly from cancer. A sense of futility or hollowness begins. There is no rhyme or reason. Good people die for no explainable reason. And as much as we grasp for a rationale, it just isn't there. It's simply the way the universe plays out. The presence of characters like Rebus and Clarke give us hope that some good can be possible, some justice served, even when we can't have logic.

This being my first experience with Rankin, I can't compare it for you to his previous works, I can simply tell you that I was bowled over. The complexity of the plot and the themes kept my brain working in overtime, while the beauty of the language and imagery stimulated my senses:

"The past had its grip on her and wasn't letting go. He worked with the past, too, but he could always put it back in a box and have it delivered to a storeroom or warehouse."

Rankin's humor compliments Rebus and his frustration with bureaucracy. The pacing and plot twists keep the momentum of the story quick. At the conclusion, I cheered over the way Rankin tied in the end with the beginning--coming full circle--and I realized I'd been holding my breath. I could once again breathe. But that breathless experience is what reading good books is all about.

Rebus is making his way back where he belongs, which allowed me to finally connect with him. There may not always be logic to the way the world works, but that doesn't mean the results are always going to be bad!

Standing in Another Man's Grave is available from Reagan Arthur Books in hardcover (ISBN: 978-031622458) and from Hachette Audio as an unabridged audio (ISBN: 9781619693814), narrated by James Macpherson. If anyone listens to the audio version, I'd love to hear what you think! You can also check out Ian Rankin's Five on Friday from last month and the recap I did of his Milwaukee event, which includes more information on the background for this book.

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