Book review: The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin

The Impossible Dead
by Ian Rankin
Orion, 2011.

The second of Ian Rankin’s Malcolm Fox series sees the “complaints” (internal affairs) team sent from Edinburgh to the coastal town of Kirkcaldy, in Fife, to investigate three policemen who may have covered up the activities of their colleague, Paul Carter, recently convicted of extorting sex from women he’s arrested. As well as the usual passive-aggressive resistance from the police in the Kirkcaldy station, there are other strange aspects to the case, for example the person who reported Carter was his uncle, a retired policeman himself. While his two younger colleagues are trying to keep appointments with the policemen they have come to interview, Fox goes to visit the uncle who lives in an isolated cottage in the countryside.

As the official investigation is continually stalled by lack of cooperation, Fox becomes more interested in the original case against Carter. Soon, a death occurs that makes his antennae twitch even more. He’s led back to the 1980s, a time of global instability and, in Scotland, extreme protests, bordering on terrorism, by the nationalists. Many of these firebrands are now in power as the SNP (Scottish National Party) became mainstream and Scotland, with the help of the Labour government, achieved devolution. Back in the 1980s, though, there were demonstrations, riots and even packages of anthrax sent to prominent public figures. Involved in these events was a lawyer, Francis Vernal, who died in a car crash at around the time that the nationalists went mainstream. With the help of Vernal’s old friend, Fox begins to find out more about the history of those times, and seeks to find what really happened regarding the car crash, and what happened to some of the activists who vanished afterwards.

Fox is also concerned about his father, Mitch, who lives in a care home. He feels guilty about Mitch being in the home but does not want to have the older man living with him. Fox’s sister Jude is constantly falling out with him and accusing him of not caring about their father. She has given Mitch a large box of old family photos so that when she visits she can go through them with Mitch to help his failing memory. While Fox is doing the same thing on one of his visits, he sees a photo of a man who turns out to be his uncle, who died in a motorbike accident at around the same time as the Vernal crash.

Gradually, due to Fox’s persistence, the threads begin to come together as the 1980s events seem to be at the heart of not only the Kirkcaldy investigation, but also to reach much higher up than that. I was surprised that Fox seems to be completely unsupervised (his boss is always in management meetings), so that even though he has been told not to do the work of the CID (a red-button issue for Fox), he simply carries on. I was also surprised that he has such a low caseload – the Kirkcaldy investigation seems to be the only complaint against the police that the team is investigating. Nevertheless, Fox’s discoveries and the way many small details gradually come together are fascinating to read, particularly the political thriller/spy aspects, which are cleverly set up and not overdone, so I was glad that he was left alone to pursue his own dogged agenda.

In the end, some aspects of the various cases are resolved, others are not, and others are left in the air. Fox’s family life, too, undergoes something of a crisis, and perhaps even a slight reconciliation, which remains to be pursued in future. Fox himself is a bit too much of an enigma to be an entirely satisfying character: he lives alone and enjoys that, has few vices though is prone to self-doubt, is reticent to embark on a relationship, feels guilty about his father and sister – but he is slightly flat. His two colleagues are more sharply drawn, but don’t feature very much after the first part of the novel. Ian Rankin is a very good author whose books are always readable and well-plotted, usually with socio-political themes. Although The Impossible Dead is very good: much better than almost all if not all crime fiction being written today in the UK, I could not help the nagging sense that it could have been even better (particularly if the cliche of a “man in peril” aspect to the ending could have been avoided!). This is not as strong as a “complaint”, more of a slight sense of some of the potential having run out of steam by the end: as a whole, the book is really very good.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Other reviews of this book are at: The Observer, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Crime Fiction Lover, Reviewing the Evidence and Books Please

BBC iPlayer: Radio conversation between Ian Rankin and Mariella Frostrup about The Impossible Dead.
YouTube video of Ian Rankin talking about the book.

My review of The Complaints, the first in this series of which The Impossible Dead is the second.

Author’s website.

8 thoughts on “Book review: The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin

  1. Did you like this more, less or the same as THE COMPLAINTS? I read that one and while I didn’t hate it by any stretch I didn’t really think much of it … a week later I had all but forgotten it and so never wrote a review. I think partly it was the character of Fox that didn’t quite grab me and I’m a bit ‘over’ books in which the investigator becomes the investigated – not sure now why I didn’t leap about the place for joy – but you have made me wonder if I was a bit tough on it and should give the series another go.

    • It is better than The Complaints but very much along the same lines. I agree that the character of Fox needs something. I liked the political story because I remember those times but it would not mean as much to someone who did not or who does not live in the UK, probably. I also suspect that the author has got bored with the Complaints department as there are lots of hints here that Fox will move into the CID (or wants to). Most of the book is about Fox’s solo investigation, the “complaint” that starts the book is quite a minor element, though of course there are connections, this being a crime novel ;-).

  2. Thanks for this review, Maxine. I have Rebus’ books lining up to read them all, I’ve only read a few. Glad to know Rankin is still on top of the game.

  3. I have read all the Rebus books but have stopped reading Rankin now, for no other reason than there’s so much else out there. It’s useful to know he still writes well, I just think there are other writers to discover for the moment. Will ‘park’ him for the time being!

  4. Maxine – Thanks for the excellent review, as ever. I know what you mean about Fox’s character, too. Perhaps Rankin will add more to it as the series goes on. I’m glad you enjoyed this one well enough to recommend it, and the plot does seem intriguing (Rankin is talented at creating stories where disparate threads are related). I may wait just a bit on this one, though, given my looming TBR. Of course that’s probably unfair of me as – and you’re right about this – a lot of what else is out there now doesn’t come close to Rankin’s skill.

  5. I have this on my “borrow from the library” list. I enjoyed THE COMPLAINTS but you can also see that Rankin is trying not to make Fox a replica of Rebus.

  6. Pingback: The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin | Petrona Book Reviews archive

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