by Ian Rankin
by Henning Mankell
Why are readers so stuck on series? Do we count the cast as personal friends or are we longing for the familiar in a world out of control?
Whatever the reason, the authors of crime novels tend to be caught in a web of their own spinning, unable to jettison a likeable or interesting protagonist and create something different. From Arthur Conan Doyle, who tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes but was forced to bring him back, to Michael Dibdin, who had the same experience attempting to dispose of Aurelio Zen (but now Dibdin has died so Zen is truly no more), authors tamper with series formulas at their financial peril.
In Exit Music Ian Rankin has not killed off scruffy, hard-drinking Detective Inspector John Rebus, but he’s about to put him out to pasture. Rebus has reached compulsory retirement age and he’s sorting through cold cases when a Russian dissident poet is found battered to death on a dark and largely deserted Edinburgh street. It is an odd coincidence that a delegation of Russian businessmen is in town, being wined and dined by a local bank’s top executives and a sinister Scottish parliamentarian.
It is even odder that the delegation leader is seen having meaningful conversations with Edinburgh’s major mobster, one Big Ger Cafferty, Rebus’s bete noir.
All the usual suspects are there, plus some new ones — best, perhaps, are the bank chair’s daughter as a study in privilege and a young born-again constable keen to join the detectives.
Exit Music was titled after a song by Radiohead and Rankin says Rebus will still be around in the next book, interfering in the cases assigned to his former junior, Siobhan Clarke, who is likely to get his job.
Swedish thriller writer Henning Mankell similarly replaced his brooding Inspector Kurt Wallender with young Linda Wallender, following her father into the Ystad police force. But Mankell, director of Teatro Avenida in Maputo, is continually looking for new challenges, so none of the Wallenders feature in Kennedy’s Brain.
Is it wise to toy with readers’ expectations? In this case, perhaps not. Instead of madmen lurking in cold, sinister forests being tracked down by a policeman who expects the worst — and finds it — Mankell has given us Louise Cantor, a middle-aged archaeologist who panics in a crisis. Her panic continues throughout her search for the person who has murdered her son; it serves as a leitmotif in a book that is literally all over the place. Louise chalks up thousands of air miles, from Stockholm to Australia to Barcelona, Greece, back to Sweden — finally to Mozambique. It’s enough to put one off foreign travel forever.
If the book is about Kennedy’s brain, it’s news to me. It’s about idealism, HIV, Africa, Big Pharma and colonialism — and local readers will pick up the plot, which we’ve encountered many times in many genres, long before anyone else.