The Black Book

Posted: January 1, 2020 in Book reviews

51g1ku1IhnLBy Ian Rankin.

(read in 2019)

Inspector Rebus has a lot on his plate. His wayward brother Michael returns to Edinburgh seeking a place to stay, and while Rebus lets him bunk in his flat—which he’s currently renting to students—when he’s kicked out by his girlfriend, Doctor Patience Aitken, he has no choice but to sleep on his own sofa. There’s a convicted paedophile who’s also returned to Edinburgh, and a half-hearted new operation in place designed to put one of local gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty’s money-lenders out of business. Rebus would love to get Cafferty but doubts this will succeed.

And then one of his colleagues, Brian Holmes is attacked and ends up in a coma. Brian’s girlfriend makes Rebus aware of a black notebook Brian used when making enquiries outside of work time. It’s in code but she thinks it might be the reason Brian was attacked.

Rebus finds the book, and while he can’t decipher everything, it becomes clear that Brian was looking into a mysterious fire that burned down Edinburgh’s seedy Central Hotel five years ago. A body was found in the ruins, a man who’d been shot, but he’d never been identified.

Rebus begins digging into the fire himself, but it soon becomes clear that certain persons would rather the past stayed buried, and soon Rebus, and those close to him, find themselves in danger.


I am trying to read the Rebus novels in order, but obviously only as I come across them, so I may have missed one or two out. Still it’s easy to pick up threads, and Rankin is good at reminding you of what’s come before without hitting you over the head and spending too long on things.

I’m still not quite sure why I like the Rebus books. There’s nothing particularly original about Rebus. A hard drinking, divorced loner with a love of books and music and a past in the SAS, it’s all the kind of character traits you could cobble together from a heap of other detectives, yet it works. Maybe because of the Edinburgh setting, maybe because of Rankin’s gritty, hardboiled and very pulpy prose. Rebus doesn’t solve crimes through deductive reasoning or some inhuman intellect, he solves them through legwork and a healthy dose of luck (though much like Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder you can argue he makes his own luck by talking to so many people, asking the same questions over and over, and through judicious application of shoe leather. Like Scudder, with Rebus it’s often a case of shaking the truth free through sheer bloody-mindedness.

The same is true here. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of threads linking them together, and while at times it does get a little confusing, it never gets quite so labyrinthine that you can’t follow what’s going on.

There’s a healthy sprinkling of coincidence, and you really do wonder quite how Rebus still has a job after one ill-judged action, but the book trots along at a decent pace and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, and Rebus’ grumpy interactions with a bunch of interesting characters are great.

A decent hard boiled crime novel that was intriguing enough to keep me turning pages, and whilst I’m not chomping at the bit to read the next in the series, I’ll continue to keep my eye out for them and will no doubt snag another one as and when I spot one.

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