A Song for the Dark Times by Ian Rankin

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Nobody familiar with Rankin’s writing would dispute that John Rebus is a canny Scot or that his unofficial professional partner, Siobhan Clarke, is a supporter of Rebus but a fully professional policewoman too. She is the anchor that holds Rebus back from making a fool of himself or making a misjudgement that will have him in hot water. We are familiar with the love-hate relationship between Rebus and the bureaucracy. But where are we left when Rebus is diagnosed with a fatal illness, when he is no longer a policeman, and when perceived conflict between duty and his love for his daughter and her child confronts Rebus?

Daughter Samantha has lost her husband. She had had a row with Keith, one of the occasions when simmering events boiled over. Keith had strayed and Samantha was angry and hurt. Rebus knows that, in the event of suspected foul play, she would be the prime suspect. Samantha thinks her father suspects her involvement and becomes difficult. Rebus takes in on himself to find out what happened to Keith. Meanwhile, Siobhan and Inspector Malcolm are working, rarely amicably, towards the solution of a different crime.

There is much more to the plot than this but Rankin’s skill as a writer is formidable and detectives working in different locations on different crimes at different speeds are all juggled with little effort. The innkeeper in a village on the wind-swept western coast is pivotal to the development of the plot and makes her desire for a fling with Rebus very clear. But no words are spoken, nothing overt is suggested, a light touch enough to reveal her need. It’s a very clever way of communicating emotion without appearing to do so. In like manner, but more crudely, is drawn the character of Samantha. A first impression would lead one to think that other characters, particularly Rebus, should pull her into line. She certainly has a mouth on her! This impression is not lasting. Rankin makes us see that she is scared, lonely and worried. Her husband has disappeared, she does not know to deal with her little girl, the police are likely to arrest her on suspicion.

In the second suspected crime investigation, the interaction between Malcolm Fox and Siobhan Clarke is, on occasion, distinctly frosty. Fox belongs to Major Crime Division but is stationed with the local police in Edinburgh. A suspicion is widely held that he reports to the MCD senior officers. Suspicions are heightened in Clarke’s mind when Malcolm begins working late but refuses to tell her why. She and Fox challenge one another head-on. Siobhan Clark’s relationship with Detective Chief Inspector Graham Sutherland is an open secret. They are lovers but live apart. At work they are colleagues. The distinction is easily recognised from the clever but appropriate dialogue.

Pivotal to the plot is the presence of a vicious criminal ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty and his instigation and monitoring of the secret work that Fox is engaged in. This is difficult writing – Fox has to be shown to be under the thumb of Cafferty, dedicated to the research he has undertaken to do, react appropriately to senior officers, and ward off the suspicious nose of Siobhan Clarke.

The framework of the novel, the populating of it by diverse characters, the unique rightness of the settings, and the elegant solutions of the crimes is revealed only when the last word has been written. A book that is exquisitely handled. Highly recommended.

A Song for the Dark Times


By Ian Rankin

Orion/Hachette UK

ISBN: 978-1-4091-7698-5

$32.99; 336 pp


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