[A version of this article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine in December2013.]
In Knots and Crosses, the prolific Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin sets up the absorbing and sometimes slightly unappealing character of detective John Rebus. In this first book in the series, we learn that Rebus’ father has just died, but (naturally) there is more grim news ahead. After 15 years “on the force” and the standard broken marriage not quite behind him, there are girls missing and they are the same age as his own daughter. Rebus is taunted by letters from the presumed killer and his mind begins to be tied up in the kind of knots that form the title of the book. It is the author’s portrayal of Rebus that makes the story a strong one. He is clearly too sensitive and too highly-strung to be in a job that deals in daily tragedy and Rankin has the literary touch that shows up all the frailties that our species can recognise in others but struggle to see in ourselves. Overweight and with sexual hang-ups, Detective Sergeant Rebus uses his powers of observation on others and the evidence in front of him, but the prospect of looking deeply into the mirror is too disturbing for him. Instead, Rebus is plagued by sudden recollections and his body complains of the simplest things, such as sitting down or finding sleep. The author glories in some of the little details of middle-age drudgery but equally does not ignore the persistent desires, both petty and grand, that his protagonist lives with. The book is somewhat unusual in that it begins with a four page introduction from Rankin himself where he explains the thought-steps and physical process of creating this work. First published in 1987, it forms the initial installment in an eventually nineteen part saga and was only his third effort at writing novels. He has said that he did not originally intend to write a crime book but gritty Edinburgh seems to me to be an ideal city to place a murder tale. In effect, it acts as more than a simple background setting and becomes almost as big a part of the mental atmosphere of the whole series as any other single factor. The author states on his personal website that in his thinking Edinburgh is “as brooding and volatile as Rebus.” These kinds of books don’t usually interest me much but the figure of Rebus is subtle, compelling and largely sympathetic.
In Nick Hornby’s Juliet Naked the author returns to familiar territory in his depiction of the kind of people who are leading their lives with music as a big part in it. Duncan and Annie are a middle-aged couple (without kids to regularly drag them back to down to earth) and have just returned home to Gooleness, a small and uninteresting fictional English town, after a kind of quasi-pilgrimage where they visited places in America that were supposedly important in the career of Duncan’s idol, former-musician Tucker Crowe. There is an underlying current of mutual dissatisfaction and tension in the pair’s long-time relationship. Annie desperately wants a child and Duncan is shocked and disgusted by his girl-friend’s indifferent reaction to a new acoustic version of “Juliet,” Crowe’s masterwork from many years ago. Meanwhile, Crowe himself is continuing to make a pathetic mess of his own relationships, except with Jackson, one of his many children from a variety of women. For me, the Tucker Crowe character is a weak point in the book because he lacks authenticity as a confused, lazy, reforming-alcoholic American. For example, in a couple of emails he uses phrases such as “not unreasonably” and “foolishly boasts.” He also says at one point, “I am very much me, and today I am very much wishing I wasn’t.” These British upper-middle class expressions simply do not ring true as the chosen words of someone with his supposed history. Equally, his awkward self-consciousness is extremely similar to Duncan’s Anglo version of “muddling through” but Crowe’s wish to stay out of the public limelight fits with the rest of his introverted mentality. The reader is left wondering about some of the motivations for his actions, even though he is not presented as an enigma of any genuine kind. He is more of a good-hearted simpleton and we are left to question how a man like him could have once created an album which apparently rivals Bob Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks or Leonard Cohen’s genius. The character of Annie is an attractive aspect of the story though. As a women who decides to secretly enter into the largely male world of music aficionado websites (such as the one run by Duncan) she has the insight to provide some satirical moments. As you read about her, you get the sense that she is more than one-dimensional and is capable of change, is able to develop during the story and we are encouraged to find out how things will turn out for her after her life shifts significantly.