September 13, 2007

Exit Rebus?

From The Guardian this week:
Rankin readers have known for several years that some kind of end was coming. Most series' authors freeze their heroes' birth-dates: realistically, John Le Carré's George Smiley and PD James's Adam Dalgliesh would have been beyond the care of the insurance industry in their later adventures. Rebus, however, has always passed a birthday during or between books and so his retirement from the force was always scheduled for November 2006, across 10 days of which Exit Music is set. Even this, as Rankin has scrupulously acknowledged in interviews, is strictly fantastical. Most cops get out as soon as they have piled enough years into their pension.

But the novels have always made it clear that Rebus remains a policeman because there is nothing else he can bear to be - he has failed in spells as husband, father, even, perhaps, as human being - and so Exit Music is underscored with a double line of heavy regret, Rebus wanting to go no more than the reader wishes him to. (Read the rest here--don't worry, no spoilers!)

I'll certainly be sorry to see him go; I'm a big fan of this series, which shows how an author can work within the structures and strictures of genre fiction to accomplish a wide range of literary and other effects. (P.D. James, another of my favourites, has said explicitly that the clear structure of detective stories frees her up to concentrate on other aspects of her fiction.*) I have taught the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, twice in my course on Mystery and Detective Fiction (and plan to assign it again this winter), not because I think it's the best of the bunch but because Rankin works so well in it both with and against key elements of its genre that it 'teaches well,' as those of us in the lit biz say. Rankin claims that he did not intend to write a mystery novel (when I was prepping Knots and Crosses, I came across a story, perhaps an interview, in which he claims to have been dismayed to find it filed under mysteries rather than under fiction or literature). He was actually working on a Ph.D. in literature when he turned to writing fiction; he is wittily but ruthlessly dismissive of critical approaches to literature now (I've seen this in person, as he gave a reading and talk here a couple of years back)--this seems like a shame, as he is (despite his best efforts to hide it) clearly very knowledgeable about the history and craft of his chosen genre, as well as about literature and writing more generally. Does he think he'll alienate readers if he drops the whole "I spend all my time at the pub" routine? (He was very funny about that, though, claiming to pass Alexander McCall Smith's house on his way to and fro and always hearing the clickety-clack of the keys there heralding the completion of yet another bestseller.)

*To hear a wonderful talk by P. D. James on "The Craft of the Mystery Story," go here.

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