Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rebus Part 2

Of course, being pushed to the side in favor of newer and/or younger detectives doesn’t really bother Rebus. Rankin has Rebus fall into cliché at that point, making his character so determined to follow through on the case that nothing will stand in his way, not even police hierarchy. And of course the story follows suit, in that Rebus is almost always right.

Fair enough. I can live with that, if only because it grates on his allies. I believe that in most other novels and series, those under him would fall in line, but here, even his best friend on the force, Siobhan Clarke, gets rankled. Instead of wanting to be just like Rebus, Clarke spends a substantial amount of time – especially towards the end – worrying that she’ll wind up just like him. And there are signs that something like that is happening. But more on her later.

 This wariness, coupled with the real-time aging process, is what sets Rebus above his counterparts in the world of crime fiction. That’s not to say he’s the only crime fiction character to have aged (Tom Ripley from the Patricia Highsmith novels aged, but not in real-time, and certainly there are other characters out there). But it certainly sets him apart.

 Now, Rebus is a Noir character. He gets beaten up quite a bit (he’s lost teeth, been cut, shot, stabbed, and so on). And he doesn’t mete it out himself. He simply takes a lot of punishment. So while he’s screwed up cases before, it’s never been through violence. In fact, I’m not even sure he carries a gun (in the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon writes that most homicide cops don’t really ever use their guns outside of the firing range, and it wasn’t unheard of for them to leave them locked in their desks, forgotten… by the way, go buy that book).

 This is the hallmark – or a hallmark – of a Noir hero. Another hallmark that Rankin explores – again, toward the end of the series – is that the overworld is just as bad, if not worse, than the underworld. As Rebus’ nemesis, Big Ger Cafferty, gets older, he starts to move the public face of his empire into more legitimate businesses. David Simon’s series on HBO, The Wire, explored this as well, and I wondered sometimes if Rankin was taking a cue.

 This leads me to something else: The villains of the series range from murderous thugs – the people you’d expect – to more institutional villains. Though they may not be doing anything expressly evil, are still doing damage in their own way. When the new Scottish parliament is to be built, the land chosen in Edinburgh is a housing estate, or, as we say in the States, the ghetto. It’s assumed that when the new parliament is complete, the land around it will become valuable. And so, people are moved out. At the time he dropped it into the story I wondered what Rankin was getting at, since he never really explored it. Looking back at it now, I think he was beginning to hint at the themes he would visit in the later books.

  So what, I wondered, was Rankin trying to accomplish with Rebus. Well, to be honest, I figure he was just trying to tell a good story. And if that’s the case, then I think he did a fantastic job of it. On the other hand, by the end, he wasn’t preaching, but he did seem to be reaching for more. Was he saying that crime has many faces? That the law doesn’t always serve Justice? I think that’s a typical Noir trope anyway. So yeah, he probably was.

 But with shows like Law & Order and CSI on, showing us run-of-the-mill villains committing crimes in all kinds of strange ways, Rankin shows that the rot is all around. And by the time the series wraps up, he seems to be saying that we need more cops like Rebus, who give themselves over to the job almost completely.

 More later, mi vaqueros.  

Friday, February 20, 2009

Inspector Rebus, Part 1

Back in 1987, Scottish writer Ian Rankin wrote his first Inspector John Rebus novel, "Knots and Crosses." It was the first of around 16 novels (including one novella and a short story, which I haven't read... sue me). The story was simple, and a little more over-the-top than the books that followed (Rankin described it as Gothic), and Rebus wasn't technically an inspector (he was a Detective Sergeant). Quite simply, a serial killer is out in Edinburgh, killing little girls. There seems to be a personal connection to Rebus from his days in the British army. Beyond that, little is known about the killer. 

As the story unwinds, clues are uncovered, chases ensue, and we begin to find out more and more about Rebus' world - his preferred pub (the Oxford), his relationship with Detective Sergeant Gil Templer, his brother Mickey, and two of his underlings, Siobhan Clarke and Brian... huh. I forget Brian's last name. For good reason, too, which I'll get into later. 

According to Rankin, though, this was supposed to be it - a one-off. Finito. The ever-lovin' end. 

But it wasn't. 

Several years later, a sequel came out, "Hide and Seek." This time, Rebus has become a Detective Inspector. In fact, he will not get another promotion for the rest of the series. And "Hide and Seek" is the beginning of a change in tone for the series. While on the one hand, the murders and crimes covered in the series are more extravagant than your usual, say, drug murder, they are grounded in the general atmosphere of the prose. Sure, in "Hide and Seek," some kid seems to have been murdered in a Satanic ritual. But the murder itself is treated out of the ordinary, and the motivation is toned down. Instead of looking for Satanists, Rebus and crew look for drug dealers, criminals, the usual suspects. Buying into the idea that a cult is responsible would be beyond the pale. 

And that's how Rankin keeps it in subsequent novels. Certainly, sometimes the villains are larger than life in some ways (for example, a recurring villain - Rebus' main villain - Big Ger Cafferty), but even their crimes are well within bounds of, dare I say it, the real world (yes, I dare say it). 

Rebus himself falls into some of the typical cliches of a noir hero. He's hard bitten. He's had a rough life. He doesn't take well to authority. He's virtually estranged from his family, including his daughter, Samantha. He gets suspended a lot. He drinks like a fish for most of the series (he does get sober for about half a novel). His love life is hit or miss. Sometimes, he has to bend or even break the law to enforce it. 

One of the more annoying cliches I found came later into the series, and that is that everything is connected (for example, in 2000's "Set in Darkness," three wildly different murder victims are connected (one is a homeless man, another is a politician from a rich family), not only by business, but by family bonds as well. And this kind of storytelling runs through, almost to the end of the series. 

On the other hand, even though he's right 99% of the time, it doesn't always end well. More often than not, there are stalemates. He might find out the identity of the murder(s), he's not always able to bring them to justice (remember, he bends and breaks the law himself sometimes). So while the reader may get the satisfaction of knowing the identity of the villain, 

Overall, this builds a compelling world, but one you could find anywhere else. However, there is one thing that Rankin stresses about Rebus that I've found rare in mystery novels: Rebus gets old. 

Not only that, Rebus was aging in real time. 

Don't get me wrong, we never really know his age. But when "Knots and Crosses" begins, Rebus is in his late 30s. By the time the latest novel, "Exit Music," rolled around, he was in his late 50s. 

To me, this really made Rankin's series stand out. There was a progression for Rebus, and a built-in end point that Rankin was going to stick to. Now, this doesn't mean Rebus' adventures are over. There were at least two "outs" in "Exit Music" for Rebus to continue under the auspices of the police. But it was his last novel as a cop. I can't think of any series where this aspect of the character is so front-and-center (if I'm wrong, feel free to list the series... I'm talking mysteries here, not SF or Fantasy). 

It makes for a compelling read the closer you get to the end of the series. How Rebus is treated changes over time. At the start, he's a good cop who sometimes bends the rules to get the bad guy. By the end of the series, he's a nuisance that the force can't wait to get rid of, no matter the results of his investigation. By the final two or three books, in fact, he's often not even the lead detective on a case. 

Sunday, February 08, 2009

So, yesterday, Saturday, the 7th day of February, 2009, was a day that I won't forget, but also of which I have a hazy memory. Because on that day, I met Takashi Miike, one of the greatest living filmmakers ever, and perhaps the most influential filmmaker I have ever seen. When I got my picture taken with him, he was very gracious, and he shook my hand twice. TWICE!!! He doesn't speak English, so all I said was "Thank you." Twice. 

He's in the city to hype his latest flick, Yatterman. He dropped by the Japan Society, and they sold tickets, and I got a pair, so I went to hear him speak. And I asked a question - something about his process of directing - and he answered sincerely, and happily, and made a few jokes (through a translator, of course). Afterwards, there was a reception, and he talked to fans (or, they talked at him, and he nodded along). And then I got this:


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

I know, I promised this would be a book(s) review, but something pretty big happened in the city this weekend: Joe Ades died. 

Who's Joe Ades, you may be asking. He is - was - a salesman who hung out in Union Square across from the Barnes & Noble and the Petco, selling a vegetable peeler. Now, I never bought from Joe (though I did get one of his peelers as a gift - and it's one of the greatest things ever). But I know plenty of people did. He would always put on a show, and I always watched for a little while before moving on. He had prime real estate in the square, simply because he was always at the edge of the farmers' market. Plenty of potential customers. 

I always figured he'd be there, perpetually in the background, like a loud swatch of aural wallpaper. But now he's gone, and Union Square - for all its its purple broccoli, bright yellow carrots, dark green leafy greens - is a little less vibrant.