Book Review: Even Dogs in the Wild – Ian Rankin

By Sam Chambers

You say you can’t keep a good man down, and that sentence has never been truer than of Ian Rankin’s curmudgeonly detective, John Rebus, who makes a triumphant return in Even Dogs in the Wild, the Scottish crime-writer’s 20th novel to feature the former detective inspector.

In and out of retirement for his last few outings, Rebus is – thankfully to us – akin to a police boomerang. Even Dogs begins with him back in retirement – through Police Scotland requirement, not personal choice – and struggling to adjust to life as a civilian, kicking his heels and contemplating what lies ahead for him on the Thin Blue Scrapheap.

However, when someone takes a pot-shot at Rebus’s old adversary and sometime-associate Big Ger Cafferty, the retired policeman’s former apprentice DI Siobhan Clarke and foe-cum-friend DI Malcolm Fox turn to the only man they can think of to get the stubborn gangers to cooperate with their enquiries.

Rebus.

Meanwhile, across town, a senior lawyer’s body has been found along with a threatening note – one, it transpires, Cafferty was also sent, so it’s up to Rebus, now working in a consultative capacity, and Clarke, to get to the bottom of it.

These incidents coincide with a volatile Glasgow crime outfit making its presence felt in Edinburgh, meaning Fox is seconded to a cover team intent on bringing them down. With Cafferty and his rivals on edge, Scotland’s capital city is on the brink of all-out war. The detectives must figure out if the crimes are linked to the outsiders, or whether it is simply an unhappy coincidence.

Rebus, of course, revels in the excitement and the intrigue, though what follows makes for an uncomfortable investigation even by his standards, as the team delves deep into the past. They are taken into some very murky waters, full of cover-ups, lies and violence, expertly contrived by Rankin.

Nevertheless, he takes great delight in proving a point to the top brass at Police Scotland, as his old-school methods turn up some unexpected leads, showing up his younger brethren in the process. Fox, on the other hand, with his father on his deathbed, is at a crossroads in his life. Questioning his own abilities as a detective, he jettisons his conservative approach to policing to take a leaf out of Rebus’s book.

The way these two characters interact, with Rebus flitting between empathetic, fatherly mentor and gloating former rival, makes for great entertainment, and the humour sprinkled in their conversations makes for light relief from the darkly twisted yet compelling narrative.

What is particularly interesting is how they help each other come to accept where they are in their respective lives. Even Dogs in the Wild sees an almost antithetical transformation of its two male protagonists. Rebus growing softer in old age – he even adopts a stray dog – and Fox becoming steelier and more aware of the ruthless, bloody-minded qualities that a ‘proper’ detective needs to succeed.

On this kind of form, it is no surprise that Rankin’s work accounts for 10 per cent of all British crime-fiction sales. His meticulous plotting, sharp dialogue, flawed but likeable characters, and subtle clue-laying, exemplifies the ability of a man who has all but perfected his craft. Only Mark Billingham comes close to matching Rankin’s talents as a writer of this genre – as does his creation Tom Thorne in equaling Rebus as Britain’s most headstrong fictional detective.

Like a fine wine, Rankin gets better with age, and it seems he – and Rebus – still has plenty more left in the tank, so don’t expect to be saying goodbye to the cantankerous old sleuth just yet.

Rating: 4/5

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