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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1740

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...

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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 apartment, and his drinking. He is a good deal more like the alleged shooter than he would like to admit. In fact, it is his SAS file that is marked, not Herdman's, signifying the high probability that someday he will “lose it.” (Rebus's time in the SAS is explained in the 1987 book Knots and Crosses.)

Rebus is fiercely loyal to his job, or rather, to solving cases, punishing wrongdoers, finger-in-the-dyke fashion. He is also fiercely loyal to a chosen few. He never knew the murdered boy who was his blood relative, even though he lived a few minutes’ drive away, but Rebus is deeply concerned about Andy Callis, a uniformed cop on sick leave, severely depressed following the death of his wife and an incident in which he shot at a teenager armed only with a replica gun. The trade in replica guns will become an important element in Rebus's investigation into Fairstone's death and the school shootings. A second meeting with the teen will leave Andy dead, though whether the result of accident, murder, or suicide neither Rebus, who has a death wish of his own, nor the reader will ever know.

The person to whom Rebus is closest is Clarke, whose importance to Rebus and to the Rebus novels has grown steadily the past few years. Alternately Rebus's colleague, mother, sister, and daughter substitute, but never girlfriend, Clarke is mainly a younger, female Rebus: an outsider by virtue of her sex and English accent, estranged from family, having no real friends, prone to panic attacks rather than drinking, and loyal—to Rebus, anyway.

Clarke's future looks bright to Mullen, the internal affairs officer looking into Rebus's role in Fairstone's death: “’Inspector within five years, maybe chief inspector before you’re forty …that gives you a whole ten years to catch up on DCS Templer.’ He paused for effect. ’All of that waiting for you, if you manage to steer clear of trouble.’” Clarke's friend Rebus may embody trouble, but Clarke puts loyalty and trust over personal advancement, despite her own doubts about Rebus's innocence.

Rebus and Clarke are the central characters, but much the of the pleasure of reading this and other Rebus novels derives from the large supporting cast that is enormously vared and deftly drawn. Besides Hogan, Callis, and Mullen, brief appearances are made by Rebus's immediate superior (and former lover) DCS Gill Templer and by Claverhouse and Ormiston from the Drugs and Major Crime division (as well as from Rankin's 2001 book Resurrection Men). There is less interest in internal affairs than in some of the previous books, and the role of bad cop is assigned to the two SAS investigators, Whitehead and Simms. Rankin's latest girlfriend, Jean Burchill, curator at the Royal Museum of Scotland, is barely mentioned, their relationship all but over. The other characters cover a great deal of ground, geographically, professionally, socioeconomically, and generationally. Represented are the dead and the living, the old and the young, the well-off judge, the member of Scottish parliament, the struggling middle-class single parent, preppies, Goths, and schemies (who live on the city's impoverished housing estates), the vulnerable female college student and the sleazy tabloid journalist, hard men and soft touches, long-time criminals and those just starting out. There are also the psychologically wounded: Allan Renshaw and Callis and ex-SAS, too, including Rebus. Interestingly enough, Rebus's frequent nemesis, the kingpin of the Edinburgh underworld, Big Ger Cafferty, plays no part here.

Much of A Question of Blood is devoted to dialogue—half distinctive, half generic, and always sharp—but it is in the brief sketches (of characters, places, groups, and the like) that are especially effective. More than just efficient ways of introducing characters, places, or groups, these sketches put readers in Rebus's mind, enabling them to see not just what he sees but how he sees, with the same quick eye for detail and possible significance.

No less integral to Rankin's art is the city he has helped make Britain's “crime capital”—in fiction, not in fact: The number of homicides in Edinburgh and throughout Britain is actually quite small. Edinburgh is more than a setting that adds local color to Rankin's grim cases. It is certainly not a place where, as an American reviewer mistakenly claimed, “universal themes transcend geography.” Rankin depicts his adopted city not only in all its specificity and topographical as well as socioeconomic extremes, but as having (along with Scotland more generally) a very specific and largely deleterious effect on its inhabitants: breeding violence and poverty as well as boundless opportunities for greed at all levels. Rankin's Edinburgh is at once realized, historicized, and mythologized. It is a city both changeless, because it is haunted by its own dark past, and changing, especially since the referendum on devolution (1997) and the opening of the first Scottish Parliament in three hundred years (1999).

Rebus has changed, too. He is no longer the detective sergeant of Knots and Crosses who “really needed their pats on the back, their congratulations on a job well done, their acceptance” and who “needed someone to assure him that it was going to be all right. That he would be all right.” He is not so much more self-assured as more withdrawn. He is also older. Forty when the series began and a year older with each novel, Rebus is fifty-five now, just five years away from mandatory retirement age. Rebus's crime investigation division headquarters has already been retired, a casualty of the new Scottish Parliament, its demise inscribed in the novel's dedication: “In memoriam, St Leaonard's CID.” Fortunately, Rankin has been preparing for that inevitability by making Clarke more prominent. That is good news for readers, who are as addicted to Rankin novels as the Edinburgh junkies are to heroin in Welsh's Trainspotting (1993). It is good news for publishing in Britain, where the Rebus books account for fully 10 percent of all crime fiction sales.

Review Sources

Booklist 100, no. 7 (December 1, 2003): 627.

The Guardian, August 30, 2003, p. 23.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 24 (December 15, 2003): 1428.

Library Journal 129, no. 1 (January 15, 2004): 166.

New Statesman 132 (October 6, 2003): 53.

The New York Times, February 9, 2004, p. E8.

The New York Times Book Review 153 (February 22, 2004): 7.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 1 (January 5, 2004): 43.

The Spectator 293 (September 6, 2003): 44.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 5, 2003, p. 8.

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