The Impossible Dead is Ian Rankin’s second Edinburgh police procedural to feature Detective Inspector Malcolm Fox, the stubbornly persistent successor to John Rebus, the stubbornly persistent hero of 17 previous highly evocative Rankin crime novels, including 2007’s series-closing Exit Music.
Fox made his entrance in 2009’s The Complaints, which introduced the fair-minded protagonist as the head of a three-man unit in the Complaints & Conducts division of the Scottish Lothian & Borders police force.
At the start of The Impossible Dead Fox and his team — Sgt. Tony Kaye and Constable Joe Naysmith — have arrived in Kirkcaldy. This small coastal town, where Adam Smith was born and Gordon Brown was bred, is on the Firth of Forth in Fife, 20 miles northeast of Rankin’s usual Edinburgh setting.
The division has recently been renamed Professional Ethics and Standards and will soon be euphemistically redubbed once again, as Standards and Values. For all intents and purposes, though, it’s an internal affairs team. Cops being investigated for various infractions know it as, and hold it in contempt by the name of, the Complaints.
This time out, the Complaints are digging to determine whether cover-up or collusion was involved in the case of a cop convicted of harassing a woman for sexual favors. The dirty-cop case seems straightforward enough. But of course it isn’t, and dead bodies are soon amassing.
As are a nefarious web of connections to a 1985 death of a Scottish Nationalist political firebrand in a suspicious car accident, and a phalanx of ‘80s radicals who have since transitioned into the political mainstream and would like their pasts to remain buried.
All this allows Rankin to draw skillful parallels between post-9 /11 terror fears, and those associated with tactics of ’80s Scottish militant groups, including bombings and the deployment of anthrax (by the group Dark Harvest Commando).
Fox is a thinker, driven to pursue the truth while trying to make sense of the world he lives in. Late in the book, he stares at the word CRITICAL, written above his desk to denote the threat status in Scotland, and considers:
“Fear: Fox had noticed the same thing when skimming the news reports from 1985. Fear was ever-present. When you stopped needing to fear a U.S.-Soviet conflagration or an impending ice age, something else came along in its place. Fear of crime always seemed to outpace the actual statistics. Right now, people were fearing for their jobs and pensions, fearing global warming and dwindling resources. If these problems were ever resolved, new worries would fill the vacuum. He stared at the word CRITICAL, then moved past the sign and headed for the stairs.”
Fox shares a rule-breaking streak with previous Rankin protagonist Rebus, but in other ways, he couldn’t be more different. Rebus drank heavily and loved music. Fox has no interest or time for either. He’s a recovering alcoholic who hasn’t touched a drop in eight years, and The Impossible Dead is almost entirely shorn of the pop cultural references that were a crucial part of the Rebus novels.
And anyway, characterization by musical taste has become a cliché of neo-noir literary crime fiction. I’m betting Rankin, rigorous, uncompromising craftsman that he is, had begun to regard it as a crutch. At one point, Fox does consider going to a screening of The Maltese Falcon, but decides to stay home and do a little digging on his laptop instead.
What you get with Fox as a hero is far from sexy, and in no way flashy. Not only doesn’t he have a love life, but also he assiduously repels the advances of a married colleague with whom he once had a one-night stand, because … well, because it would be the wrong thing to do. He’s also got a sick father in an old-folks home. Father ribs son about the latter’s insecurities about being more of a bureaucrat than a real cop, as well as about an unhappy relationship with his frequently unhinged sister.
So in lieu of excess atmosphere, what we get with The Impossible Dead is dialogue that rings true, a sense of life as actually lived, and the lessons to be learned — or not — from history, all framed in an engrossing story never told hurriedly, but always well-paced.
Toward the end of The Impossible Dead, Fox encounters a police technician who refers to Rebus. That’s probably just a tease, but for longtime readers it’ll be enough to spark hope of a future collaboration. Rebus wasn’t killed off, after all; he just retired. If Rebus and Fox join forces, maybe Rankin will also bring back Siobhan Clarke, Rebus’ foil, who is missed as much as her partner.
One can hope, anyway. But even as Rankin leaves some featured players in the past, he still has a rewarding Scottish police procedural future in front of him, and in Malcolm Fox, a worthy protagonist worth following into it.