I hadn’t picked up an Ian Rankin novel for some time. Just got kind of tired of him after an intense period some time back. However, if you’re going to Edinburgh as we are soon, he’s as good a guide in some ways as Rick Steves and a hell of a lot more entertaining. Thus, The Naming of the Dead.
The title, like much of the book, is multi-faceted. There are unidentified bodies. The book is set at a G-8 summit beset by protesters who hold a “naming of the dead” protest in honor of those killed in Iraq. The summit, of course, attracts world leaders, which, of course, demands extra security which interferes with Inspector John Rebus’ investigation of the unidentified bodies. That’s the nub of the plot. There are a number amusing side incidents, the most interesting of which, perhaps, being Rebus’ witnessing of George Bush’s fall off his bicycle. In fact, Rebus could be said to have caused the incident, but only in the sense that the politician can’t stop waving and smiling even when he should be paying attention to more important matters. And that’s part of the point of the book, so it’s more than just an aside.
I don’t recall another Rankin that rises to the rank of international thriller. My impression that most of them are pretty local Scottish. However, this one qualifies as a heavy hitter in that department. There are other bodies than those unnamed ones. One of them is a highly placed MP who somehow gets pitched (pitches himself?) over the castle wall. Rebus thinks he ought to be investigating that one, too, that it could be somehow tied to the others. Higher ups disagree. Partner Siobhan, whose parents are among the protestors, is looking to solve the serial killings and get promoted. Multi-layered complications ensue.
John Rebus is a pretty unlikeable character in many ways–an alcoholic, smoking, loner with an immense and stubborn talent for solving crime. But no talent at all for developing relationships. That’s not an unusual set of traits for a literary detective, but Rankin manages to make his protagonist incredibly sympathetic in the process.Rebus tries very hard to be and do good, and those efforts draw us to him. In addition, every step of the action takes us deeper and deeper not only into his world but the world of both the victims and perpetrators until one often isn’t sure which is which is which. And that, I think, is Rankin’s point. Thus do we end up appreciating The Naming of the Dead as not a mere thriller, but a deeply moral work worthy of one of the world’s top writer’s at the top of his game.