A Question of Blood Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Ian Rankin's A Question of Blood is the fourteenth novel featuring Edinburgh detective inspector John Rebus. Begun in 1987, the series, which also includes a novella and two collections of short stories, has a new Rebus book appearing just about every year. Rankin also published six other novels in the 1980's, early in his career, including three under the name Jack Harvey. He began supplanting Irvine Welsh on the Scottish and British best-seller lists in the late 1990's, about the same time he won the coveted Golden Dagger award for Black and Blue (1997) and started attracting a large American following. Although he did not invent the so-called tartan noir, Rankin certainly increased its visibility and advanced the art, while adding to the international allure of modern Scottish writing.

A Question of Blood begins the day after a seemingly senseless shooting at a private school in South Queensferry, ten miles from the city center, has left two students dead and another wounded. Dead too, by his own hand, is Lee Herdman, a former member of the Special Air Service (SAS), an elite commando unit with a history of its members “losing it.” Knowing of Rebus's brief stint in the SAS, the officer in charge of the investigation, Bobby Hogan, asks for his help.

However, the problems associated with Rebus's involvement are many. First, he is in hospital with two badly burned hands, scalded, he says, when he drunkenly fell into his bath. Second, the same night Rebus injured his hands, a nefarious character named Martin Fairstone, who had been harassing Rebus's closest colleague, Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke, died in a fire, just hours after Rebus had been seen drinking with him at a pub and entering his apartment. (Rebus will be suspended from his duties, pending an investigation.) Third, Rebus turns out to be related to one of the dead students; thus one of the meanings of the novel's title and a situation which calls for Rebus to make the relationship known (which he does not) so that he can be disqualified from the investigation (which he is not). Before the cases are solved, there will be two more deaths, several subplots, and plenty of red herrings.

The novel's structure is as simple as the plot is intricate. The story unfolds in seven parts, or “Days” (workdays), further divided into twenty-seven chapters plus a short epilogue. As the novel and the investigations proceed, the pace picks up. Chapters in Days One and Two average twenty pages each; in Days Six and Seven, just twelve and eight, respectively. Questions arise, complicating the obvious, with the first big break coming a little more than a quarter of the way through the novel, when forensic pathologist Dr. Curt unofficially tries to help Rebus by explaining exactly how Fairstone died.

Rebus pokes the first hole in the SAS/Dunblane explanation of the school shooting. (Dunblane was the site of a March, 1996, school shooting that left sixteen students and one teacher dead.) Why, Paul asks, did the supposedly deranged Herdman walk past a schoolyard full of kids before shooting anyone? Why did he shoot these three students? Why, if the explanation is so straightforward, has SAS sent two of its own to investigate for a full week? The nascent forensic science and straightforward causality of Sherlock Holmes's day has given way to the Butterfly Theory that Rebus has distantly heard of but intuitively understands. Rebus does eventually put the pieces together—a photograph, Webcam, diamond, and Land Rover here, a military helicopter crash years before, a blood-spray pattern there. One of the novel's epigraphs is Ita res lumina rebus (thus one thing throws light upon others). Putting the pieces together, however, does not mean that justice will prevail and order be restored, and so the novel's other epigraph reads: “We find …no prospect of an end.”

With his badly scalded hands, Rebus is in hot water in more than one sense and forced to battle with his hands tied, or at least bandaged. He is at once the badly tarnished knight errant who eschews the rules and a man haunted by his own past: separated from his former wife and his daughter, drifting away from his most recent girlfriend, retreating more into his work, his...

(The entire section is 1740 words.)