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Ian Rankin's The Naming of the Dead

Ian Rankin’s police detective, John Rebus, is almost a national icon in Scotland. Antonia Fraser (2008) writes that Rankin’s depiction of Edinburgh is so compelling that whenever she visits there she expects to be greeted by Inspector Rebus. Not surprisingly, Fraser chose Rankin as one of her top 5 picks for crime writers. Rankin has been identified as “Edinburgh’s gritty crime laureate” by The Times and listed as number 9 in its list of The 50 Greatest Crime Writers. This Scottish writer has won the most coveted awards for mystery writing: 4 Dagger awards including the prestigious Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement, the Edgar award, and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. In 2002, he was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his services to literature.

Rankin has written 30 books, 17 of which are Inspector Rebus police procedurals. He started writing these novels, as he himself admits, “when he was supposed to be working towards a PhD in Scottish Literature.” A native of Scotland, he graduated from the University of Edinburgh with bachelors and masters degrees in English Literature. The Rebus books have been translated into 22 languages, and according to his website, are best-sellers on several continents. Rankin has been identified as the master of “Tartan Noir,” and has acknowledged that James Ellroy has been an influence. “I’d learned a lot, he said, “from James Ellroy about using real characters and real crimes in your books, and putting in some historical perspective” (Wanner 2011, 3, 14).

The Naming of the Dead (the 16th Inspector Rebus novel) begins in the summer of 2005 when the G8 leaders gather in Scotland. The suicide of Scottish MP, John Webster, occurs at the same time as clues to the possibility of a serial killer surface. Officials want to avoid negative publicity and a public scandal at all costs. David Steelforth, the SO12 Commander in charge of policing the summit, tries to circumvent Rebus’s efforts to investigate. Chief Constable James Corbyn suspends Rebus when he ignores orders to postpone the investigation.

Rebus is a character you won’t forget. He is unconventional, irascible, crotchety; he never plays by the rules but is always just. Interestingly enough, Rankin tried to retire Rebus in 2007 after his seventeenth novel, Exit Music. Five years later, he has brought him back in Standing in Another Man’s Grave. Like Arthur Conan Doyle who tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes and was forced to resurrect him, Rankin bowed to his readers’ requests to write again about his detective.

John Scaggs observes that “the police procedural frequently features as its ‘central’ characters police detectives who occupy similar ‘marginal’ positions to the lone PI of hard-boiled fiction” (2005, 90). Scaggs uses Rebus as an example of a “rule-bending individualist”; much of the interest in The Naming of the Dead lies in watching how far Rebus will go in his nonconformity.

The novel is a skillfully executed, character-driven mystery. Siobhan Clarke is just as insightfully drawn as her police partner, Rebus. Ott (2008) points out that her “multidimensionality nearly equals that of Rebus himself.”

No less a person than the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, penned The Times piece on Rankin in the series of articles on the “50 Greatest Crime Writers.” Brown wrote, “The Rebus books, – and I have read almost all of them – are social documents: fast and gripping stories, grounded in detail and often paralleling real events, and rich in character and social observation too” (2008).

Rankin is interested in the mystery novel as social critique. The crime story, he maintains, “is a very good way of writing about urban experience and society, about current affairs and politics” and the detective in a crime novel “is a very, very good tool for opening up the world and exploring it” (Wanner 2011, 5, 8).

Scotland, and particularly Edinburgh, is a character in The Naming of the Dead in the same way that Thomas Hardy’s Essex or William Falkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is. “I started writing novels,” explains Rankin,
while an undergraduate student, in an attempt to make sense of the city of Edinburgh, using a detective as my protagonist. Each book hopefully adds another piece to the jigsaw that is modern Scotland, asking questions about the nation's politics, economy, psyche and history ... and perhaps pointing towards its possible future.
Gordon Brown (2008) calls Edinburgh, the second greatest creation in the novels (after Rebus). If you want the true flavour of these Scottish novels, you must listen to them as audio books. James Gale’s Scottish accent and gravelly voice perfectly capture the spirit of the novel.

When asked to identify his favourite Rebus book, Rankin replied, “The Naming of the Dead.” (Wanner 2011, 15). This novel has a captivating plot, unforgettable characters, witty dialogue, and a provocative social commentary. If you haven’t read it yet, you are in for a real treat.

Brown, Gordon. “Ian Rankin; The 50 Greatest Crime Writers.” The Times. April 19, 2008.

Fraser, Antonia. “My Top Five: The 50 Greatest Crime Writers.” The Times. April 19, 2008.

Ott, Bill. “The Naming of the Dead.” Booklist. February 1, 2007.

Rankin, Ian. The Naming of the Dead. 2006. London: Orion, 2007.

Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005.

Wanner, Len. “Ian Rankin: Rough Justice in Tartan Noir.” In Dead Sharp: Scottish Crime Writers on Country and Craft. Isle of Lewis, UK: Two Ravens Press, 2011, 1-37.