A Short Story Collection
by Ian Rankin
‘To be honest, if you were going to see Christ anywhere in Edinburgh, the Hermitage was perfect.’ [from ‘Seeing Things’]
It’s been a while since I read one of Ian Rankin’s detective stories – Westwind isn’t a detective story! – so I enjoyed dipping into these tales from John Rebus’s earlier career. Each one offers a glimpse of a different part of Edinburgh, from the elegant Georgian quarter, through the middle class Morningside to dingy tenements and the high-rise monstrosities of the 1960s. They flesh out Rebus too, from his somewhat sloppy domestic lifestyle to the working of his sharp intellect. They deal with the abrasive nature of his relationship with some of his senior colleagues, and occasionally with the soft centre that hides behind his tough Scottish exterior.
The title story takes place during the annual festival when a body is discovered hanging on a scaffold in the Royal Mile. The dead man belongs to a group performing ‘a play of sorts‘ at the Fringe. ‘Scenes from a Hanging‘ is all supposed to be student fun, full of ‘thrills, spills and a live hanging on stage‘ but no one is expected to take the claim seriously – except the murderer.
In Not Provan, a pun on the unique Scottish alternative to ‘guilty‘ or ‘not guilty‘, Rebus steps briefly outside the law to make sure the prosecution case against title character Willie Provan isn’t thrown out of court. One juror doubts the evidence that appears to exonerate the accused of the crime and with Rebus’s tacit agreement, sets out to check the witness statements for himself.
‘Rebus’s mind flashed again to the dark alleyway, a distant streetlamp, the cornered drug dealer. He had thrown packets from his pockets onto the ground as he ran. Like sowing seed.’ [from ‘Sunday’]
Monstrous Trumpet is an amusing story of Rebus’s time with a visiting French detective, Monsieur Cluzeau, only none of the Edinburgh lot can bring themselves to use his name. (Film buffs, think Peter Sellars!) However, M. Cluzeau is not quite the bumbling, incompetent policeman portrayed in The Pink Panther movies.
In Concrete Evidence, two partners in a building firm go out for an early morning sail. Only one of them comes back. More than twenty years later, a murder victim is discovered beneath the cellar of an old property about to have new drains installed. Back in the 1950s, the building was the property of a wine merchant, Mr Hillbeith, who hired the builders to put in a new floor. The vintner, now retired is quickly dismissed as a killer. But who was the victim and how did his body come to be under Hillbeith’s floor?
A dozen stories altogether, A Good Hanging is a fun afternoon read for enthusiasts of the detective genre, and devotees of Ian Rankin in particular.