The cover of Ian Rankin’s nineteenth novel in the Rebus series, Saints of the Shadow Bible, poses the question, ‘Rebus: Saint or Sinner?’
Readers familiar with John Rebus — and they are legion; Rankin is the UK’s best-selling crime author — will anticipate the answer. As Rebus himself puts it, ‘The good guys are never all good and the bad ones never all bad.’
That said, there is nothing predictable in how this moral ambiguity plays out in this tightly plotted and atmospheric page-turner.
In Saints of the Shadow Bible, Rebus has come out of retirement and re-entered the police force, albeit demoted to the rank of Detective Sergeant and junior to his former partner, Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke. The story opens with Rebus and Clarke being called to the site of a car accident. Rebus suspects a young woman injured in the crash is protecting someone else. His suspicions deepen when he learns her boyfriend is the son of the Scottish Justice Minister and leader of the Yes campaign for the approaching Scottish independence referendum.
Meanwhile, an ambitious Solicitor General decides to re-open a case that brings Rebus and his former Summerhall CID colleagues, known as ‘the Saints’, under the scrutiny of the Police Complaints and Conduct Office, known as The Complaints. Thirty years earlier, a police snitch named Billy Saunders was tried for beating a man to death, only to have the case collapse — or was it sabotaged?
While Malcolm Fox of The Complaints appears to convince Rebus to be part of the investigation, the reader is kept guessing as to where Rebus’ loyalties ultimately lie.
‘You ever see that programme Life on Mars? It felt like a documentary,’ says Rebus of his time at Summerhall.
At its heart, Saints of the Shadow Bible is a novel about a police force and a country in transition. A referendum on independence is approaching. Eight regional Scottish forces are being amalgamated into a single entity called Police Scotland, with various departments — including the Cold Case Unit where Rebus is based — ceasing to exist after the restructure. The Complaints is about to be ‘trimmed’ and Fox shipped back to CID, ‘where he would work alongside men and women he’d investigated, in stations he’d investigated, stations where he would be mistrusted if not reviled.’ The re-opening of the Saunders case is only made possible due to changes to the double jeopardy law.
Rebus, who has always been a maverick, is ‘a breed of cop that wasn’t supposed to exist any more, a rare and endangered species.’ He appears proudly resistant to change, a dedicated smoker and drinker with neither ICT nor people skills.
‘I’m from the eighties,’ he tells a hapless suspect. ‘I’m not the newfangled touchy-feely model. Now get out of my fucking car!’
Whether being old school makes Rebus corrupt is a question Rankin explores in this novel. Another is the perennial question of whether the ends justifies the means. In doing so, Rankin continues to deliver in Rebus a nuanced and engaging character who is not above testing the reader’s loyalty.
Rankin took the book’s evocative title from a song written by his friend, the late folk singer Jackie Leven. I won’t it spoil it by revealing the significance of the Shadow Bible, except to say it’s worth reading the whole novel to see the way it features in the finale.
Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin (2013) is published by Hachette Australia.
Listen to my on air review Saints of the Shadow Bible on Radio National Books and Arts Daily here.