A HEART FULL OF HEADSTONES By Ian Rankin
The twenty-fourth book in Ian Rankin’s much loved series about detective John Rebus, A Heart Full Of Headstones (Orion, 11 October 2022), opens the with former Edinburgh police detective about to face trial for an unspecified crime.
It is a masterful, attention grabbing, opening by Rankin, and just as we are about to find out whether Rebus is pleading guilty or not guilty to the undisclosed charge, the book moves back to the events that put Rebus in jail. Set over an eight day period, we follow Rebus as he undertakes a seemingly innocuous task for the wheelchair bound, ailing gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, who wants to find out if a former employee is back from the dead. Meanwhile, a corrupt policeman on domestic abuse charges is threatening to reveal all about the nasty going-ons at the notorious Tynecastle police station. Many of the crimes he is promising to expose are historical, but others are more recent, and he has a lot of people nervous, possibly including Rebus who was infamous for “bending rules and crossing lines” when it suited his view of justice. As Rebus tries to track down the truth about the long-thought dead Jack Oram, his former colleagues, Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox, dig into the allegations about Tynecastle. Gradually both investigations head in the same direction, which could be disastrous for Rebus.
As usual, this is a well-crafted and always interesting novel by Rankin, which seizes attention from the opening pages and holds it until the unexpected conclusion. The book is slimmer than a lot of recent crime novels, and the story moves along at a good pace with plenty of dips and turns as it makes its way to the final revelation.
There are all the usual, high quality, Rankin hallmarks here: clever plotting, sharp social commentary, gritty characters, a wry sense of humour and the occasional musical reference. Sometimes a couple of them are even thrown together, as in this encounter between Siobhan and Rebus, while walking Rebus’ dog, Brillo:
“She locked her eyes onto his. ‘Are you ready to face whatever’s coming, John?’
‘I’m like Billy Joel, Siobhan – an innocent man.’
‘Walk back with us, then. Here, you can take charge of Brillo’
“It’s what detectives do, isn’t it? Follow leads?’
Underlying the wit and the occasional light touch, however, is a strong sense of melancholy that permeates the whole novel. In part, this is due to the corruption and endless cycle of violence which features so heavily in the book, but it is also heightened by Rebus’ declining health and his reflections on the emotional and moral toll that his career has had on him. Rebus is getting old and he feels his age in this book, and often reflects on what it means to get old and lose relevance:
“Could old men affect the world around them, play a part, still make their mark? … Rebus was aware of how nobody looked at him twice these days as he walked down the street, queued to pay for a newspaper, stood at a bar waiting for his eye to be caught. He was nobody special, just one among multitudes. Sitting here in his Saab, he felt more than anonymous. He felt invisible.”
Rebus and ‘Big Ger’ dominate the book, but Rankin also continues to nicely develop the supporting cast of Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox in an engaging manner. Fox does not have the appeal of Rebus, but Siobhan is growing into a character of real substance, who seems more than capable of carrying a book on her own.
At the core of A Heart Full Of Headstones is a clever plot that engages and holds our attention. The various strands come together in an interesting way that does not over strain credibility, and Rankin delivers some good surprises towards the end. I suspect that the final pages will not please everyone, but the ending is guaranteed to keep us all eagerly awaiting the next instalment, which is apparently not due until 2024!!
A terrific read! Four and a half stars out of five!
A Heart Full Of Headstones is released in Australia on 11 October 2022 and in the United Kingdom on 13 October and the United States on 18 October. Thanks to Hachette Australia and the Canberra Weekly for an advanced copy of the book.