What is loudly heralded as the final case for Edinburgh Detective Inspector John Rebus sees Ian Rankin returning to the form that established his name as one of Britain’s keenest crime writers back in the mid-1990s. Although the most recent outings lacked the vigour and richness that elevated the series’ undoubted highlight, Black and Blue, far above the opposition, Exit Music ends on a genuine high.
Before DI John Rebus’ scheduled retirement in November 2006, he and Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke are attempting to clear up a batch of unsettled cases. Their progress (or lack or it) is interrupted when a dissident Russian poet is killed after an apparent mugging goes badly wrong.
Edinburgh is playing host to a Russian delegation and the powers that be are keen that the case should be wrapped up as quickly and discretely as possible. But Rebus and Clarke aren’t too sure, especially when a second, seemingly connected, death occurs. Then local gangster and Rebus’ long-term nemesis, ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, is brutally attacked and the Inspector finds himself the prime suspect. Exit Music is pretty much a book of two halves. In an unacknowledged homage to John Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series, the first line on the first page repeats the opening sentence in the very first Rebus book, Knots and Crosses: ‘The girl screamed once, only the once.’ After that, the novel clip-clops along without too much sparkle. Rebus looks back on his life and on his ‘career’ and we are taken along for the journey. For a while there’s the fear that there’s just too much navel-gazing and too little investigation.
Then Rankin’s professional mastery kicks in and the final half of Exit Music entertains, surprises and ultimately satisfies. Anyone who thought they had the solution licked by page 100 will certainly be admitting defeat before they hit the last page.
Along the way Rankin drops hints as to what the next move will be. Who will be Siobhan’s CID partner and will she take over the series, with Rebus perhaps acting the part of a weird, whiskey-sodden Mycroft Holmes? Or maybe Rebus will be reluctantly invited to join the Serious Crimes Review Unit looking – in the style of BBC TV’s New Tricks at cold, unsolved cases? Perhaps both; maybe neither? Jim Driver
Mark Billingham, Little Brown
The latest outing for overworked London Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, kicks off when our very likeable hero receives a grisly, blurred photograph via his cellphone. It shows what looks very much to the DI (who’s become something of an expert in such matters) like a dead man. But there’s no hint as to who the victim is – never mind any clue as to the identity of his assumed killer. And when another picture of a different dead man arrives, it’s getting serious and Thorne shows just why bookshops all over the world look forward to the latest Billingham. All in all, ‘Death Message’ is another cracking thriller from the former stand-up comedian and TV writer, who has proved himself one of the unexpected long-stayers of British crime fiction. Recent Thorne outings may not have been quite up to the early standard set by ‘Sleepy Head’ ‘Lazy Bones’ and ‘Burning Girl’ but ‘Death Message’ is a definite return to form. Recommended.Jim Driver
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The Blind Man of Seville
Robert Wilson, Harper Collins
Those paying attention to events at the literary end of crime fiction will know Wilson as the author of six previous thrillers, all of them stylish and enhanced by exotic locations. The first four were magical, enthralling works of detective noir set in west Africa. The next, a darkly mysterious World War II puzzler, ‘A Small Death in Lisbon’, was the deserved winner of Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for best crime novel of 1999; its follow-up, ‘The Company of Strangers’, saw Wilson knocking at the door of bestsellerdom.
This startling new novel follows Wilson’s general trend towards darker, more disturbing fiction, and introduces a complex new character: homicide detective Javier Falcon of the Seville police. It is a book that exists on multiple levels, kicking off as an off-key detective story and ending up as (amongst other things) a tense psychological thriller and a literary investigation into perception and family loyalties.
The revelry of Semana Santa (Holy Week) is interrupted by the bizarre murder of a leading restaurateur, whose body is found, bound and gagged, in front of a TV screen. To force him to watch the images, the killer had surgically removed Raúl Jiminéz’s eyelids. Although Falcon’s perceived coldness earned him the nickname ‘The Lizard’, he is uncharacteristically shocked by the killing and drawn into discovering details of the dead man’s life. As he digs, Falcon discovers to his horror that his famous dead artist father was involved in the background to the mystery, and maybe more. A wonderful, if essentially dark and disturbing, literary detective novel. Martin Radcliffe
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Ken Bruen, The Do-Not Press, Â£6.99
Galway writer Ken Bruen lived over a decade in Brixton and Kennington as special teacher for so-called ‘low achievers’. Along the way he picked up a Runyonesque feel for south-east London and its people that first exploded on to the page in the acclaimed noir, ‘Rilke on Black’. This is his sixth since. To call it a crime novel is like saying wine is something to drink. On one level it’s a reworking of Billy Wilder’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’, on another it’s a modern morality tale, thick with misfits, losers and those who prey on them.
Mitchell is released from Pentonville after serving three years for a vicious attack he doesn’t even remember. He’s met at the gates by Norton, a former associate with plans â€“ plans that include violence, extortion and payback. Mitchell is an anti-hero in the tradition of Thompson and Goodis, a flawed character with a curiously twisted sense of morality, but even he realises that things are going too far. Attempting to distance himself from his turbulent past, Mitchell takes a job as handyman in sunny west London, a cop-out those south of the river don’t approve of.
The cast of characters in ‘London Boulevard’ is rich and Dickensian: in Holland Park there’s fading actress Lillian Palmer and her east European butler, Jordan; back in cold, dark SE11 the list is headed by loan shark and general bad guy, Tommy Logan. But the best of the bunch is Mitchell’s sister, Briony; disturbed and maybe a slug short of a massacre, her love for Mitchell pulls him back on to the straight and narrow â€“ almost. ‘London Boulevard’ is truly great entertainment, permeated with a dark and disturbing strand thatï¿½ll stay with you long after the final denouement. Treat yourselves. David Peters
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