While many mystery writers have tried, few succeed in creating a second series. James Lee Burke's Billy Bob Holland is merely a westernized version of Dave Robicheaux and Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone is Spenser in a different guise. Ian Rankin, the master of Scottish noir, delivers. With John Rebus retired in EXIT MUSIC, one of the best books in the entire Rebus series, what would he do for an encore?
Enter Malcolm Fox. Fox is exactly the type of policeman Rebus would loath. He is member of the Professional Standards Units, formerly Complaints and Conduct, police officers who investigate other police officers. He does not drink (though an argument can be said that single malt might be more salubrious to one's health than a steady diet of Irn-Bru.) He suffers from a crisis of confidence in his work, even being tormented by his ailing father of not being a real detective doing real police work.
In the second book to feature Malcolm Fox, THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD, Rankin once again weaves a plot with many threads. Called in by Fife Constabulary to investigate the colleagues of disgraced detective Paul Carter, Fox and two other members of the Lothian and Borders Professional Standards Unit, Sergeant Tony Kaye and Constable Joe Naysmith, meet with the predicted closing of the ranks. During the course of the investigation Fox interviews the original complainant, Paul's uncle and retired policeman, Alan Carter. Alan now owns a security company and has also been retained to investigate a 25-year old cold case.
When Alan is murdered with Paul fit-to-order, Fox picks up the quest. Why was the death of lawyers and Scottish separatist firebrand Francis Vernal ruled a suicide and not properly investigated? Rankin now weaves his plot. There is the passion of homegrown separatist of the mid-1980s, a gaggle of groups, including those who used terror tactics to attempt to achieve their cause. Dark Harvest Commando actually used anthrax "mined" from Gruinald Island--the island itself the site of British experiments in biological warfare during World War II. The island became uninhabitable.
Fox continues to pull on the threads, uncovering a conspiracy of silence. Involvement of MI-5, police corruption that results in gun running and destruction of evidence, stonewalling by the powers that be, favors called in at the New Club--an exclusive men's club whose membership include the powerful and rich. In the midst of his investigation Fox also deals with family issues. His father lives in a retirement home, his dementia becoming more pervasive. His sister, unemployed and always distraught, brings more tension into the family struggles. While poring over a box of old family photos with his father, Fox discovers a cousin, Chris Fox, who was a member of the separatist movement and who died in an unexplained motorbike accident. Fox and his team succeed in solving a crime that no one wants solved, ultimately and ironically achieving justice.
The dialogue is sparkling. Perhaps it is the trio rather than the duo of Rebus and Siobhan in the earlier books that make the language so real.
As always there are enough topical events to not only anchor the book in time, but give it a strong sense of place: the fear of new terrorist attacks, the outrage at the release of Lockerbie bomber and mastermind Megrabi, and the much delayed launch of a new tram system in Edinburgh.
THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD is a strong effort by one of the true masters of the mystery genre. Malcolm Fox deserves to be judged and read as his own man.