“Be Careful What You Wish For, Strawman.”
This 13th novel in Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2004. And every single page of the work speaks for why. This entry has so impressed me, scared me and influenced me that this is my third post on the work relating to my blog theme of “What I Think About What I’ve Read.”
As I stated in an earlier post, the DI Rebus series is a character driven Scottish police procedural focusing on homicide. John Rebus is the main protagonist spanning each novel in the series and his character is deeply flawed: a functioning alcoholic, an aging “dinosaur,” a basically non-promotable maverick and thought to be bent.
From the standpoint of the current times, he is all those things – except bent. He’s a dinosaur because he has an extensive street network and places his emphasis on investigative paths rather than on administrative statistics. He’s non-promotable because he investigates where – and to whom – the evidence leads rather than where – or away from whom – the administrators want it to lead. And he does have a relationship with Morris Gerald Cafferty, the biggest mobster in Edinburgh. And while that relationship often helps him with cases, it is quite an adversarial relationship and he does not consider himself to be in Cafferty’s back pocket.
Finally, the ripple effect from all of Rebus’s choices, both personally and professionally, in the previous novels accumulates into the tidal wave of consequences that is the premise of this novel. Rebus is now on desk duty. Therefore, his current disciplinary status, his street knowledge as a maverick investigator and his reputation as the resident “bad boy” puts him right in the crosshairs for becoming the lead investigator in an undercover Internal Affairs operation. Rebus’s Chief Constable wants him to attend Resurrection School at the Police Academy to ferret out evidence to prove that a trio of cops, also assigned to the school, were complicit in foiling what is now a 7-year-old cold case – and who are rumored to have been continuing their bad acts in the years since.
As part of their training to work as team members rather than as mavericks, the Resurrection group is assigned a cold case to work. They have all heard this is part of the remedial course and expect it. What John doesn’t expect is that the cold case is one in which both he and one of the other Resurrection cops were involved several years prior, rather than the standard test case that the academy always uses. Blind-sided by the situation, John is no longer sure, and with good reason, whether he is really an investigator or whether the Chief Constable has set him up to be trapped right along with the others.
Overall, this plot is a win-win situation for the Chief Constable. If Rebus unearths proof of the three officers’ culpability in the 7-year-old drug theft case, they are dismissed from the force and the CC wins. If Rebus’s culpability in the 6-year-old cold case being studied by the group is proved, a thorn-in-everyone’s-side Rebus is finally dismissed and the CC wins. If Rebus is not implicated and he fails to get proof on the trio, he simply finishes the remedial Resurrection course, returns to work a supposedly rehabilitated officer and the CC wins. The problem is what happens if the group Rebus is investigating finds out he is a mole. If they are guilty of what Rebus truly suspects, then Rebus could die. Oh well, the Chief Constable still wins.
Back in 2002, when this book was published, Rebus’s survival was definitely an issue – it was the current book in the series and you never know, at the time, whether a particular entry will be the last. So, as I reached the heart-pounding, tension-filled end – and I do mean the last 20 pages of the book – my only consolation was in knowing that Rankin has written 8 more Rebus novels between 2002 and 2017. Rebus would live, but at what cost?
That cost is what caught me by surprise, but it really shouldn’t have. Any experienced hard-core mystery reader will know that if an author bases his entire plot on his main character being sent in to get the goods on a trio of suspected corrupt cops then they will indeed be corrupt cops. And any experienced hard-core mystery reader knows that the author will have the corrupt cops discover the mole. Thus, Rebus, his act exposed, determines that the trio will not let him live. He’s not okay with that, but is essentially resigned to his fate until …the trio tell Rebus that they plan to torture and kill his partner and protégé, DS Siobhan Clark, as well.
At that point, thinking he has to choose between saving Siobhan’s life and saving his own, Rebus deliberately chooses to become what everyone has always suspected him of being.
Quoting Rankin, who can express what I feel about this point of ethics much better than I can:
Rebus thought back six years…At the end of his tether, he’d…paid a visit to Barlinnie, not to ask Cafferty a favor but merely to tell him the story, hoping Cafferty’s contacts would succeed where he had failed. But that hadn’t happened. Instead, his men had attacked [the suspect], beating him mercilessly and leaving him to die. Which hadn’t been Rebus’s plan at all. Not that Cafferty had believed him. When Rebus had returned to Barlinnie to rage at him, Cafferty had laughed….
We should be careful what we wish for, Strawman…The words ringing in Rebus’s ears all down the years.
“I need a favor,” Rebus continued. He took out his notebook and wrote down an address, tearing out the page and sliding it across the table. “If some of the merchandise found its way here, you might find the heat dissipating a bit….”
“Always nice to do business with you, Strawman…”
Rebus stood up, fearing at first that his legs might not support him. His whole body felt like it was turning to dust…the dull sensation of ashes in his mouth.
I’ve made a pact with the devil, he thought…Resurrection would come only to those who deserved it; Rebus knew he was not among them. He could find a church and pray all he liked, or offer up his confession to [the CC]. Neither would make a jot of difference. This was how the jobs got done; with a tainted conscience, guilty deals, and complicity. With grubby motives and a spirit grown corrupt. His steps were so shallow as he walked towards the door, he could have been wearing shackles.
…Cafferty had ceased to see him, his annihilation complete.
But as proved by the additional volumes in Rankins play list, Rebus does not die, although it is incredibly nip and tuck for a bit and Rebus suffers a grave injury.
Quoting Rankin again:
[In the end] it [asking Caffery for a favor] was a complete and utter waste. Rebus could feel his stitches tingling, reminding him that he was still alive. All because [one of the trio] had changed his mind. He rose to his feet again, brushing the earth from his trousers and hands.
Sometimes that was all it took to effect a kind of resurrection.
Bottom line about what I got from reading this novel:
As many before have quoted: Be Careful What You Wish For!
Because the genie in the bottle may interpret your wishes far differently than you have expressed them. And you will have to live with the consequences of the genie’s actions as well as your own for the rest of your life.
Cover Art Courtesy of Goodreads.