Ian Rankin

(Orion, £22)


It’s a testament to Ian Rankin’s fertile imagination, and his patience, that it’s taken him 24 Rebus books to bring out the twist of putting his protagonist on trial. That’s the teaser for A Heart Full of Headstones: after putting countless criminals behind bars, Rankin’s gruff, pragmatic detective is himself in the dock. The rest of the book recounts the events that put him there.

Rebus books are always dark, but this is more sombre and funereal than most, a mood reflected in its autumnal cover art. The retired copper is ailing, suffering chest pains and dizzy spells and requiring frequent puffs on an inhaler for his COPD. There’s the sense that dark clouds are gathering, and that all the times in his career that Rebus has bent and broken the rules are finally about to catch up with him. “He’d broken laws and skewed evidence and taken bungs, arrested guilty people for crimes they hadn’t committed when he couldn’t hold them to account for the ones they’d actually carried out. He’d used his fists and his feet as weapons of intimidation.” And his arch-nemesis, former gangland boss Cafferty, seems set to nudge things in just the right direction to destroy Rebus once and for all.

Cafferty reaches out to the detective, hiring him to track down Jack Oram, a former employee he ran out of town years earlier for ripping him off. With his life almost over, it seems that the old gangster wants to apologise and make amends. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Edinburgh, events are taking place that will intersect with Rebus’s unofficial investigation in troubling ways.

His protégé, DI Siobhan Clarke, is handling the case of an unpleasant copper named Haggard, who has been arrested for domestic abuse. His defence – that he was suffering from PTSD from working at the notorious Tynecastle police station, and that he’s willing to go on the record about the “culture of corruption” there – sends shockwaves through Police Scotland. Clarke’s pursuit of the truth brings her face to face with the sinister, misogynistic Tynecastle “Crew”, as well as Haggard’s wife and her sister, who have close ties to businessmen whose activities may not be entirely legal.

Stretching from penthouses overlooking the Meadows to lock-ups in Sighthill, Rebus’s and Clarke’s separate investigations prove to have some elements in common, but Rebus’s links, however tangential, with the Tynecastle Crew put him in a precarious position. The higher-ups favour the idea of making an example of older, retired officers and letting the younger ones off the hook, and the fact that two of the Tynecastle police name Rebus as a bent copper intrigues his old sparring partner, DI Malcolm Fox. Siobhan Clarke is finding her faith in her old mentor tested, as she becomes increasingly uneasy about how Rebus’s transgressions have continually been indulged, and Rebus himself is haunted by misgivings that he was ever held up as someone to aspire to.

As always, Rankin’s plotting is fiendishly clever, his characterisation exemplary and his sense of time and place precise and authentic. Set just as Edinburgh was coming back to life after the pandemic, it leaves one convinced that Rankin must have trawled the city’s streets to note the exact location of every roadwork and diversion.

In its sombre majesty, this tale of reckonings is one of the highlights of the Rebus canon, loaded with omens of things irreparably falling apart, but nevertheless leaving us with a sneaking suspicion that Rankin might be able to put it all together again for one last fling.