It’s no small thing to grow old. Time and life catch up with you, even if you are John Rebus. But the fact that Rebus is no longer the man he once was does not mean he is any less of a man. In his latest novel, Rather Be the Devil, Ian Rankin explores the interstices of aging, crime, manhood and the constant churn of change. Siobhan, Malcolm Fox, Deborah Quant, Darryl Christie and Big Ger Rafferty are all back and all is not well.
Rebus, we learn early on, is sick – COPD, to be precise. But it might as well be life, the disease for which there is but one cure. Big Ger seems to be accustomed to gangster retirement, but like Rebus, he’s finding it hard to leave his past behind. While Malcolm and Siobhan are trying to find out who’s taking shots at Rankin is so thoroughly invested in , Rebus remembers a cold case and sets about solving it. But men who know how to fight and are accustomed to it are disinclined to stop.
The latest string of Rebus novels proves to be a powerful and engaging exploration of characters and themes we already know and love, written with the depth and ease that comes from Rankin having spent some 30 years in this man’s shoes. In fact it is the 30th anniversary of the first Rebus novel, and Rather Be the Devil shows that there is plenty of life left in Rebus’ still vital character. Rankin is so thoroughly invested here that it is effortless to immerse yourself in his words and his world.
But while Rebus and the gang are charming, there’s a lot more going in here than character-based charisma. Rankin’s prose is a constant pleasure to read, poetic and prosaic in one swell foop. The ease with which the words come enables readers and the writer to enjoy the sumptuous or rough and ready details, to get down and live this life. Put all this in a tense plotline with surprises in the right places, and you get a full serving of book. This is pure pleasure reading, with an afterkick of feeling life’s rich pageant just a little more deeply.
The question for me as a reader and interviewer is whether I look forward more to reading to talking with the author. I’ll call it a toss up, because when we sit down to talk, it always feels like yesterday – something we do often. You can hear my latest conversation with Ian Rankin by following this link to download the file or by pulling up a good single malt and settling down to listen below.