The first few pages of Fleshmarket Close set the scene and initiate three investigations. Detective Inspector John Rebus and his friend and colleague DS Siobhan Clarke have been moved from their old base to work in cramped conditions in Edinburgh’s West. Rebus is assigned to the investigation of the murder of an unidentifiable but clearly foreign man, stabbed and left to die between two blocks of squalid Council flats. At the same time, Clarke is asked for help in tracing a runaway teenage girl. Later that same day, Clarke and Rebus together are sent to discover the history of a pair of skeletons found under the cement floor of a hotel.
The solution of these crimes depends on the discovery of links between them. It is engrossing in its own right, as layers of criminal association are exposed one by one. But as in any really good novel, police procedural or not, the characters and their physical and social environment are the real story.
This is where Rankin excels. His people are complex and utterly believable. One feels they matter to the author, and all of them come to matter to the reader. The plot seems to develop naturally from their responses to each other and their circumstances – nothing is gratuitous.
The central concern of Fleshmarket Close matters to us, too. The predicaments of refugees and illegal immigrants and the role of detention centres are important issues in our real life, and their importance in Rankin’s fictional Edinburgh challenges the reader to think seriously about them.
There’s a rebus in the book for readers who like their little puzzles, as well as a Rebus, and a couple of kinds of fleshmarket as well as the alley that gives the book its title. Those who know the series will also have the pleasure of meeting old friends again. These, though, are tiny bonuses. The real reward is reading such a beautifully written book.
By the way, the answer to the question which begins the review is very simple: I ignored reviewers who were telling me how good the series was. If you don’t know the Rebus books, I suggest you do as I say, not as I did, and read them.
Review originally published Nov 2004;
published here 2020.