Inspector Malcolm Fox might consider getting a life. The Scottish detective is a teetotaler and turns down a woman’s advances. He doesn’t listen to cool jazz or hot rock bands. He doesn’t watch great films, and his idea of television is watching old American reruns. He eats microwave-ready meals. When he’s not working, he’s visiting his ailing father in a care home and spatting with his unemployed sister. He’s not even a goody-two shoes. He’s reformed, but struggling. He used to drink and has had a short, failed marriage and at least one one-night stand behind him. Briefly put, he’s an anti antihero and a bit of a bore.
Except if Fox got a life, he might not be as good at what he does. He works as an inspector for the Complaints Department, the Scottish police division that is treated as the lowest of the low by their fellow police men; they investigate crooked cops.
After the successful Inspector Rebus stories, Tartan noir writer Ian Rankin has created this unusual hero. The Impossible Dead is the second in the series, preceded by The Complaints. By creating such a hero, Rankin shows off what he does best, creating captivating characters and dialogue. Rankin uncovers the intrigue of the ordinary.
Inspector Malcolm Fox, Sergeant Tony Kaye and the fledgling Constable Joe Naysmith are called to Fife for a seemingly insignificant mop- up operation – the flotsam of a recent conviction. Detective Constable Paul Carter, a 15-year cop from a family of cops, has been found guilty of misconduct for seeking sexual favors. It’s the Fox team’s job to investigate the lesser charges of whether his fellow officers turned a blind eye, engaged in a cover-up, and possibly gave false testimony in Carter’s behalf.
The team arrives to interview detectives Haldane, Michaelson and Scholes, only to find they are otherwise engaged; two are out on call, the other on sick leave. Once they do get Scholes and later Haldane in an interrogation room, they are treated the way a 7th grade English class welcomes a substitute teacher. Both use familiar runarounds -- phony interruptions, defensive and evasive smart answers. Fox responds with the heard-it, seen-it all before imperturbability of the seasoned professional. Still, the team gets nowhere.
The stonewalling leads Fox’s team to pursue other leads. Here, too, they meet resistance. A primary witness Theresa Collins freaks, turning so hysterical that the officers flee the interview; Collins proves far more successful at unnerving the Fox team than the officers; additionally neighborhood hoodlums dump garbage on their car.
Paul Carter’s uncle, Alan Carter, the original complainant and a retired cop is more welcoming, but hardly more revealing, when Fox interviews him. Avuncular to all but his nephew, the mystery deepens when Alan turns up dead in an apparent suicide.
Still the long, slow investigation seems to be going nowhere except to the sidelines, and those sidelines are where the investigation gets interesting. A passing glance at material Alan Carter had been looking over from 1985 provides Fox with an investigative thread to follow. A weapon that was supposed to be destroyed long ago re-emerges and a car that might have long since been junked turns up to reveal other old clues. Problem is Fox isn’t formally investigating Alan Carter’s death – but he’s way ahead of those who are.
Set against the backdrop of new blasts in the woodlands outside Lockerbie, a name the world associates with international terrorism after the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 there in December 1988, the plot stretches into the all-but-forgotten home-grown terrorism and social upheaval in Scotland in 1985. At the time Scotland experienced its own nationalism shadowing what was going on in Ireland with paramilitary organizations similar to the Irish Republican Army. Those formerly incendiary issues of domestic terrorism have cooled and become acceptable, even mainstream; some of their leaders now blend in as respectable citizens.
By inverting so many of the conventions of the hard-boiled police procedural, Rankin’s achievement rests on plain good writing, character development and plot. There’s a lot to briefly stop and admire.
Language. Scottish colloquialisms anchor the dialogue to its world; phrases such as “grassing up his mates,” “threw a wobbly,” “keep your gob shut,” and “he was cack-handed” locate the characters. But it isn’t just the local jargon that pleases me. Each time I read the word comprise, my editing knee jerks. Here it’s used in the active voice and correctly (not as a synonym for compose) every time. It warms my heart’s cockles to see that Rankin loves and knows how to use language.
Scene construction: A subtle family moment occurs when Fox visits his father Mitch whose failing memory is a concern. It’s the son who doesn’t remember ever having been in Fife before and the father who shows a photograph and recalls all the details of a long ago day.
Layering of conflicts: Complicated dynamics work at the most intimate of levels. Malcolm Fox can’t ever seem to say the right thing to his sister Jude. Conflicts among family members of several characters are involved at the edges of so many of the intrigues.
The interactions of teams reveal the same kinds of frictions. Among Fox and company it’s Tony Kaye who’s particularly good at teasing, giving the greenhorn Naysmith a hard time for his choice of clothes, sticking him with the bill, chores, lesser duties and poking away at Fox for his persistence.
Ultimately conflict is what Rankin explores most skillfully; showing how we jostle and grate, irritate and anger, betray and terrorize within family, work teams, professions, national politics and ultimately even world politics.
In Rankin’s The Impossible Dead, the dead may be impossible, but the living don’t cooperate very much either.