Northern “cousins” carry much in common when it comes to crime fiction
Scotland: It’s 530 miles away and can easily make a strong argument that it should be included in any survey of Scandinavian Noir. Indeed, the Scottish writers are quite popular in Bergen and Oslo, Bergen in part because of shared weather.
But Norwegian readers with fondness for Varg Veum and Harry Hole also cotton to Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. In fact, before I left Norway, I got to attend a wonderful on-stage discussion between Gunnar Staalesen and none less than Rankin. The central subject was the commonalities of their series’ character—Veum and John Rebus.
As usual, the Scots have hardly been idle. Rankin is back with a new chapter in his John Rebus series, this one entitled A Heart Full of Headstones. It’s the 24th installment in this remarkably durable franchise: the scruffy police detective has been with us since 1987—not only in print but as manifested in two—count ’em—television series.
Rankin has allowed his character to age, and these days, Rebus is retired, suffering from COPD (oh, those ciggies), and trying to stay away from the hard stuff, as opposed to the occasional—and often not-so-occasional—pint.
Restless as ever, Rebus has a companion these days—a miniature mutt named Brillo who, on long walks, the ever-grumpy Rebus employs as his sounding board as he tries to get an angle on cases he is no longer officially allowed to investigate.
As usual, the rocky road of a Rebus investigation is also traveled by his long-time colleague Siobhan Clarke, now a detective inspector and not getting any younger herself, and, of course, sometime adversary Malcolm Fox, the by-the-booker, who often investigates dirty cops. There are more than a few of those in A Heart Full of Headstones, including a wife beater this time. But as usual with Rebus, all roads lead to the nefarious crime boss Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty, who now also claims to be retired. Fat chance—Cafferty has plenty of fingers in plenty of illegal pies, and one of those is going to involve Rebus in a skip trace on another felon who may be dead—or may be dangerously alive.
By the end of the current novel, Rebus will have lost his cool with Cafferty enough to have physically attacked him (I will say no more except that it’s a socko scene) and, in the last chapter, he has found himself on trial for sins both past and present. To call the ending a cliffhanger would be an understatement.
Everything his fans love about Rebus is here—the delightful music references (the title is taken from another song by Rebus favorite Jackie Levin), the endless Rebus banter with colleagues and crooks alike—in these books, often one and the same—and the tender-tough relationships between Rebus and his semi-estranged daughter and granddaughter—and of course Siobhan Clarke, a union that is forever on the brink of being more than Clarke and Rebus will admit.
The chilly atmosphere of Edinburgh fits the requirements of Norwegian Noir just fine—as does Rebus himself: he’s as tenacious as Varg Veum and sometimes as reckless as Harry Hole. Rebus is like an old, sometimes self-destructive friend who will never settle down, which causes his loyal readership to breathe a hearty sigh of pure relief.
The prolifically prolific Val McDermid, author of at least three running series, has added a new heroine to her literary family—Allie Burns, a crime-solving journalist operating in Glasgow. The novel 1979 and its sequel, 1989, have a clever gimmick: we check in on Allie every 10 years, and in those 10 years, Scotland, like the rest of the world, changes a lot.
The first novel puts us at a time of IRA terrorist activities and lots of labor unrest. The young and not fully seasoned Allie and her fellow novice Danny Sullivan find themselves caught up in a massive tax fraud that implicates Danny’s jerk of a brother Joseph and an even more sinister plot involving pre- Brexit scheming. Plenty is happening, and in these days when print journalism still had life, a reporter’s day could be pretty exciting.
I admit to loving this book because back there in the ’60s, I took a degree in journalism, and I have never lost the excitement I found in pursuing a great story. That is essentially what 1979 runs on: the thrill of putting words on paper that will enthrall and inform a reading public.
Alas, we now live in a world of sound bites and cable headlines, and those days are gone. But this book and its sequel, 1989, which takes place in the world of Pan Am 103 and AIDS, preserves that magic of the days when good writing mattered. This is a very cool idea for a series—although its future seems chronologically doomed by the calendar—but McDermid is always ahead of the game and she no doubt has ways to get further longevity out of this excellent new series.
Helen Fields is not a prolific as Val McDermid, but she’s close, with several series and a number of standalones to her credit. The Last Girl to Die offers us Sadie Levesque, a Canadian investigator who travels to the Isle of Mull off the Scottish Coast after she is hired by a local family whose daughter Adrianna Clark has gone missing.
It doesn’t take the resourceful Sadie long to find her: Adrianna has been murdered in a particularly grisly way and left in a cave with a mysterious crown made of seaweed affixed to her head. The island—both in the book and in reality—is a small place that only affords so many suspects, but Sadie is in the voguish mode of the kick-ass woman who just won’t stop until she finds a killer.
The best part of the novel is its evocation of Mull with its foggy mornings and portentous streets full of twists and turns. This one is visual enough to make a good miniseries. With Shetland about to end its moody run, we need one.
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.