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British Mysteries

Fleshmarket Alley, Ian Rankin, Little, Brown, $6.99.

We recently read this book for our book club, and while I had gone into our discussion feeling that it was overly long and was sadly comparing it to the first few Rankins which were tight, short and to the point, the discussion helped me to appreciate some of the qualities of this book which I had overlooked. Inspector Rebus, many novels into this series, has aged, mellowed and stopped drinking 24/7 (he's cut back to a mere 8 or 10 brews after hours), and while he's not exactly lost some of his anger issues, he has learned to control them a bit. Like some of his companions in the crime fighting game - Dave Robichaux and Harry Bosch come to mind - Rebus has always been in the white knight mode while at the same time sharing some of the issues of the criminals he's trying to catch. In Fleshmarket Alley the meat of the book couldn't be more topical - illegal immigration. Rebus's anger here is properly directed, and will probably be shared by the horrified reader when the story takes Rebus to the privately owned "holding center" where immigrants are taken prior to being deported. It's really nothing more than a prison, filled with the hopeless who fear nothing more than being sent back to their own countries to face certain death. Rebus's crime solving skills are top notch as well - there are many threads in this novel - one of them involving the discovery of two skeletons on the basement of a pub, another the missing daughter of parents who have already lost one daughter to suicide.

The murders in this novel aren't incidental, but neither are they given more weight than anything else in the story, and I think that's my objection to the book. There's hardly anyone more talented than Ian Rankin at depicting character, at prose, and even with themes that are topical and meaningful (and that stay with you) but he's lost some of the narrative drive that made his early books so thrilling. I realize that, like Rebus, Rankin has matured - as a reader, I just want a little bit of that heedless immaturity back, and a few less pages to tell what really is a well thought out and even important story. When mystery lovers talk about mysteries that "transcend" the genre Rankin is at the top of a short list, and it's impossible not to want to see where his prodigious talent will take him next, extra words or no. (Robin)

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