Set in Darkness
Thanks to Ian Rankin, master of Scottish noir, Edinburgh has become the crime-fiction capital of the world. Edinburgh, which is where Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was born, is Detective Inspector John Rebus’s beat. First introduced in 1987 as a forty-one-year-old Detective Sergeant, the aptly named Rebus has aged and deepened over fourteen years and just as many books. As his hero has grown, so has Rankin’s reputation: in part because of the way his art has advanced a form defined by convention, in part because of interest in all things Scottish, and in part because Rankin’s immensely popular fiction is so in tune with questions of national identity during a transitional period in Scotland’s history.
The fit between nation and narration is especially close in Set in Darkness in which the failed referendum on Scottish devolution of 1979 and the passage of a similar bill in 1997 loom large. This being Rankin, politics is just another outlet for corruption, this time involving rigged real estate deals. The first of the novel’s many corpses is found, appropriately enough, in a building that had once been the residence of the architect of the 1707 Act of Union which joined Scotland to England and that is now being restored for use by members of the new Scottish parliament. The novel’s several mysteries are all related, Rebus (as usual) believes, but the connections are not elementary, as Holmes would say. They are as complex as Rebus’s investigations are complicated by cover-ups, professional rivalries, and the passage of time, as well as the personal demons that wrecked his marriage and that now threaten to ruin his career.
Rebus is a good cop in his own way, but “not a team player,” and his dedication to the job a sign of his obsessive personality, a substitute for meaningful, long-lasting personal relationships. Not that solving crimes does much good in the grand scheme of things, for in the world according to knight- errant Rebus and author Rankin, evil is constant and detective work a zero sum game. Set on the eve of the new millennium and the convening of the first Scottish parliament in three hundred years, Set In Darkness ends with Big Ger Cafferty, Rebus’s nemesis, his Moriarty, now out of prison and back in control. “The city may be changing,” Cafferty tells the hard- boiled yet, in some ways, appealingly idealistic Rebus, “but it still works the same way.”