Ian Rankin's Latest Would Be A Fine Row Did His Publisher Not Assume British English Was Beyond Our Ken
With the 2005 G8 summit happening a few miles up the road at Gleneagles, Edinburgh is thronged with tourists, anti-capitalism protesters, military intelligence, police officers from all over Britain, and politicians from around the world. The brass would very much prefer Detective Inspector John Rebus keep his grumpy, hard-drinking ass out of the limelight for the duration. Unfortunately, when Rebus has the bit between his teeth, even the sight of George W. Bush falling off his bike won't distract him from a case. And the case dealt with in The Naming of the Dead is very juicy indeed.
A prominent British politician dies in an apparent suicide, falling, thrown, or jumping down the side of Edinburgh Castle Rock during a state banquet. Miles away, at the Clootie Well-a spooky glade where locals leave articles of clothing for good luck-articles belonging to murdered rapists are found. The dead bad guys have been named and shamed on the "Beast Watch" web site and may have been set up by a serial killer with a vengeful streak. Rebus connects the murders of the sex criminals with the death of the politician and is immediately pulled off the case by his superiors, who don't want rape mingling with the G8 summit in the headlines. Rebus' erstwhile junior, Detective Sgt. Siobhan "Shiv" Clarke, officially takes over the case, but neither she nor Rebus manages to remember for long that he's not in charge. An aggravated assault on Clarke's parents-which may have been the work of one of her fellow officers-leads her on her own, potentially murderous, vengeance trip. Throw in a turf war between a local mobster (a recurring Rebus nemesis) and a preacher turned corrupt priest, and you've got the makings of a fine plot with some very unexpected turns.
Edinburgh crime novelist Ian Rankin writes a good mystery. He's a purveyor of tough, gritty tales well rendered, and Rebus is a very real protagonist in an increasingly realistic Edinburgh. Over the years Rankin has eliminated made-up pubs, streets, police stations, etc., replacing them with actual locations. An observant reader could navigate from Southside to Trinity getting themselves a good pint and sandwich on the way.
Dead is the 16th time Rankin has taken Rebus out for a spin around the novelistic block. For all of its grit and 450 pages, the book carries itself lightly. Part of that lightness is due to the things that creep into Rebus' mind when he should be detecting-that maybe the Pink Floyd reunion would be worth seeing or being pleased that Shiv can identify Elbow playing in his car while he's talking to her over his cell phone-or "mobile," as he would surely call such a device.
Yes, British English is not the same as American English, so it probably makes sense for a certain amount of transatlantic clarification to take place. That said; Americans aren't stupid-and someone should tell that to Little, Brown, which apparently credits readers of mystery novels with limited intelligence. In every instance of a uniquely British usage, the U.S. edition of the book has an American substitution.
In one of their casual exchanges, Shiv asks Rebus, "How was the Who?" "The Who was good," replies Rebus-except nobody British says "was" of a band. The Who are good or, more likely, were good. Every flat has become an apartment, every mobile is a cell-confusing when Rebus is thrown into a cell, but still has his cell-all petrol is gas, trainers morph into sneakers, and football is suddenly soccer.
It's a petty observation, but it's petty like complaining about running your errands with grit in your shoe: You still get everything done, but you're never quite as focused as you would be. More egregious, though, are those instances involving cultural substitutions that just don't work. In one scene Rebus is hungover (again) and can't remember the previous night, but smells vinegar on his fingers and realizes he ate "fries."
The most stereotypical truism about Brits is that they eat fish and chips. And who puts vinegar on french fries? It would have made more sense for him to have found ketchup under his fingernails. Moments like this jolt the reader out of the novel. The rhythm and color of the words matter, and Rankin is a decent prose stylist whose rhythm and color are all messed up in this edition. Why not go the whole hog and respell Siobhan as Cheyvonne?
Rankin's publisher does him no favors breaking the proscenium arch in this jarring way. Reading a Rebus mystery, you want to be in Edinburgh, not suddenly jerked into the United States. Scots reading American novels realize that someone in "vest and pants" is smartly dressed, not running around in their underwear. It adds texture, depth, and pleasure to read in an author's native idiom and vernacular. It's patronizing in the extreme to assume that American readers of Scottish fiction aren't capable of the same feat. If you've any fondness for mystery stories, or you fancy trying one with far more literary heft than the genre is generally credited with having, read this one. But if you can lay your hands on it, read the U.K. edition.