The Rebus novels of Ian Rankin essentially defy review. If you enjoy well-told police procedurals with an emphasis on personality and legwork, and a minimum of technology and fisticuffs, they will serve you well. If not…
The Saints of the Shadow Bible, if it differs greatly from prior Rebus volumes, is due to the presence of Rankin’s other series character—the fastidious Complaints officer Malcolm Fox, and due to the state of Scotland itself. 2014 will see a simple vote on independence from the United Kingdom: Scots will vote either Yes or No. And the warring camps are neck-deep in murders both vintage and recent, as Rebus (likely a No vote) and his former junior partner and current superior Siobhan Clarke (Yes) discover after investigating a seemingly simple car crash.
Rankin’s mission as a writer is to follow the life of Rebus as he ages and retires, and to create a record of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, as it evolves. The crimes of the Rebus novels are almost superfluous; the joy of reading comes from the setting. Rebus is virtually retired now, but as a young police officer he was a member of the titular Saints, a group of corrupt cops who may have killed a suspect long ago, and to keep a witness quiet let a common criminal get away with murder. If that’s the Scotland of No, of the failed 1979 vote on devolution and its aftermath, then the current Scotland of Yes seems no less dysfunctional. Institutions, regulations, and proper procedure lead to no less heartbreak and misery than corner-cutting and dirty work.
The Saints of the Shadow Bible has the bulk of its power in its brief epilogue, where Rebus takes a step he spent the entire investigation avoiding, but the long build-up is well worth it. Love turns to murder, loyalty to betrayal, and even after cooperating with the straight arrow Fox, Rebus turns too… something you thought he might have been too old to manage. —NM
Mother-in-Law Review Corner
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri is a story of two killings. The first is that of a policeman, assassinated in a pre-planned attack on the streets of Calcutta, India in 1976, in which a young man, Udayan, motivated by his Maoist/Naxalite views, is involved. (The Naxalite movement was inspired by the exploitation of under-privileged farmers by feudal landlords.) The second is the killing of Udayan himself, immediately after his capture, unarmed and unresisting, by the Indian police before the horrified eyes of his mother, father and pregnant wife, Gauri.
The novel explores the ramifications of this second violent death on the family left behind. The family consists of the three witnesses, plus two other intimately involved relatives who are not witnesses. These are Udayan’s older brother Subhash, who is studying in America at the time of the murders, and Udayan and Gauri’s unborn child, Bela. She is born in America, since Subhash, inspired by both attraction and compassion, marries his brother’s widow.
At the core of the book is also the story of two brothers, who are very close. The book starts with several scenes from their childhood and teenage years. They are both very intelligent but also very different. Subhash is more contemplative, risk-averse, conservative, and obedient to family tradition; while Udayan is charismatic, quick to action, reckless, idealistic and willing to break the rules.
The Lowland is no conventional murder mystery. There are crimes, but no detectives. Udayan’s body goes missing, never to be returned, but the reader understands that this was routine in India at the time of an uprising against the state and the consequent government clamp-down. There was no possibility of an investigation. How the police pinned the guilt on Udayan plays no part in the book either, though when Gauri returns to the scene of the crime many years later, the readers do discovers more about that first killing. We learn, for example, that Gauri played a part in the crime, as an information gatherer, so that the optimum time for the assassin and his accomplice to commit the murder could be determined.
Unlike most stories of murder, this is a quiet, still book. The immigrant family live an ostensibly peaceful life near the Rhode Island shore, about which Subhash says, before the murders changed his life, “There are times I think I have discovered the most beautiful place on earth.” He is a marine biologist and takes Bela for nature walks along the beaches. Gauri is also profoundly academic by inclination and eventually by profession also. She is obsessed by her study of philosophy. The adults go to the university, do research. But below the surface the tensions mount and grow. Subhash’s love for Bela, his step daughter who is also his niece, is strong from the start and only increases. But there is something seriously wrong with Gauri. She is bitter and full of rage; unable to feel or express love for either Subhash or for her daughter. Eventually she commits an act, a quiet one, not noisy like a murder, but nevertheless devastating in its impact on her husband and daughter.
The tensions and suspense of this novel are as strong as those of any well written murder story, but they stem from the readers’ empathy and concern for the wellbeing of the characters involved. Gauri is deeply wounded by her first husband’s death, and probably too by her part in the murder of the policeman, whom we know to have been the father of a young child. She is undoubtedly suffering from severe stress-related illness, though Lahiri provides no such diagnosis, leaving it to her readers to evaluate Gauri’s actions and their effects on her husband and child, and to judge her as they will. Bela, in her turn, is traumatized by her mother’s behavior. But Subhash is the character about whom we care the most. His capacity to love and to endure is very moving and we find ourselves longing intensely for him to find happiness at last. The suspense mounts as we fear that he will remain lonely and isolated, cut off from the land where he grew up, and from all loving family relationships, the collateral damage of his brother’s idealistic but tragic action.
Like the traditional murder mystery, which in so many ways The Lowland is not, its structure is conventional. The novel does not leave its readers to guess at an ending. —MF
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