The “crime novel hero” movie is becoming a genre in itself. James Patterson’s Alex Cross, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, and Thomas Harris’s Clarice Starling (among others) have all appeared on the big screen on more than one occasion. Aside from their talents as super-sleuths, with their brains working a hundred times faster than anyone else’s (not to mention their bad luck with partners), most of these heroes are ultimately flawed, making them introspective, dark characters. Scottish author Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus is the same kind of flawed hero, easily distracted from his work by his personal troubles. The only problem is, in Dead Souls, the first of the two telemovies that make up the second series of Rebus, his flaws are never fully realized. Rebus’s motivations take a backseat, as he pieces together one of the most mind-numbingly peculiar puzzles ever conceived.
This puzzle begins when Rebus and his colleague and friend, Margolies (Hugh Ross), arrest a known paedophile, Darren Rough (Russell Barr), after spotting him at the Edinburgh Zoo, apparently taking photographs of children. When their hunch proves incorrect, Rough is returned to the safe house where he has been staying, following a short prison term (for an earlier offence). Here, an angry mob has gathered to rid their neighbourhood of this “monster.” Fed up with the harassment, he escapes from his quarters out his bedroom window and into the rainy night.
Meanwhile, just over the other side of a gorge, Margolies is driving home with his wife and young daughter. After arguing with his wife, he exits his car and proceeds into the night himself. Of course, he winds up dead the next morning at the bottom of the gorge. Family, friends, and colleagues are convinced it was suicide; after all, his father observes, “It runs in the family.” But Rebus is not so sure. It’s up to him to investigate and find out just what happened atop those rocks. At the same time, he’s looking for the son (the brilliant Iain Robertson of Small Faces) of his former girlfriend, Janice (Michelle Fairley), whom he hasn’t seen for 20 years. He has recently started having an affair with her, even though she’s now married to one of his old friends (Paul Cunningham).
Rankin’s Rebus novels are renowned for heavy plotting such as this, but as we all know, a lot more can be done in 300 pages than 100 minutes. In between all his crime solving, we are only briefly introduced to Rebus’ alcoholism and depression. While tackled in slightly greater detail in the first two Rebus films, Black and White and The Hanging Garden, here they are relegated to one night of indulgence, followed by the odd beer and a smoke. Producer Murray Ferguson (Hannah’s partner in Clerkenwall Productions) says that the films are less about the crimes and more about the man. This really isn’t the case with Dead Souls and for me, with limited knowledge of the character on television or in print, I was fully into solving the elaborate crime rather than figuring out Rebus himself.
Perhaps my reason for accepting Rebus as is, with little backstory, is that John Hannah has visited such grimy territory before, in the wickedly brilliant series, McCallum. Dr. Iain McCallum, a forensic pathologist, was similar to Rebus, only much more compelling, due to his seeming lack of morality and unflinching loyalty to his job and colleagues. Throughout the eight telemovies that made up the McCallum series, he found his way into a great many sticky situations, and usually, someone close to him wound up dead. McCallum was more often than not emotionally involved in his cases, and this, coupled with his devilish sexiness and no-bullshit attitude, made him intensely likeable. More importantly, his motives were always clear.
John Rebus lacks such background. The telemovie’s structure doesn’t help either, providing few characters who might assist in our understanding of its protagonist. McCallum provided sharp character development of everyone involved, so it was never just about one man. McCallum’s interactions with friends, lovers, co-workers, and adversaries brought him to life. Rebus, however, is rarely in long scenes with anyone in his office and never appears in personal situations, other than his affair, which is skimmed over making his decisions regarding it rather typical. The only other person he does confide in is killed in the first ten minutes of the movie, and he never turns to anybody else with his problems.
Rebus’ potential complexity is lost in the dizziness of the tale surrounding him. The familiarity of Hannah’s portrayal, however, and the difficult situations in which Rebus is embroiled, make Rebus, no matter how flawed, enjoyable viewing.