Book review: Outsider Rebus looks inward in Ian Rankin's superb 'A Song for the Dark Times'

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"A Song for the Dark Times" by Ian Rankin; Little, Brown (336 pages, $27). - Little, Brown and Company/TNS/TNS

“A Song for the Dark Times” by Ian Rankin; Little, Brown (336 pages, $27)

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Retirement has never fit former Edinburgh police Inspector John Rebus. His life has revolved around solving crimes, bringing killers to justice and battling the city’s crime boss. Ian Rankin retired his popular character in 2007’s “Exit Music,” adhering to Scotland’s mandatory retirement age for police, but brought him back in both official and unofficial roles.

Rankin has found fresh ways to explore his insightful, cantankerous and independent character in each of Rebus’ reappearances, as he does in “A Song for the Dark Times,” his sixth appearance since “retiring.” The superb “A Song for the Dark Times” — a prophetic title if ever there was and a metaphor for Rebus’ life — works as a tale about mortality, lost opportunities, regrets and growing older.

“A Song for the Dark Times” has Rebus suffering from COPD, finally giving up cigarettes and almost stopping drinking alcohol. He’s forced to move to a ground floor apartment because he can no longer climb the stairs. Bad habits have caught up with a vengeance, though his mind and sleuthing skills are still sharp.

A major regret is that Rebus wasn’t a better parent, leaving much of that to his deceased ex-wife. “I always enjoyed my job too much,” he admits. When fallout from his work threatened his family, his former wife and daughter, Samantha, moved to London. Visits and phone calls were sporadic.

Now Samantha needs her father because her partner, Keith Grant, has vanished. Rebus doesn’t hesitate to travel to a remote part of northern Scotland to help Samantha and his young granddaughter, Carrie. Keith had been very involved with a local historical group researching a camp built during WWII that held captured German soldiers and other prisoners of war, and was documenting its lingering effect on the local residents. Back in Edinburgh, former colleague Siobhan Clarke, who is caring for Rebus’ dog, Brillo, investigates the seemingly motiveless murder of a wealthy young Saudi man.

Rankin’s skillful plotting is fueled by attention to character and intriguing backstories. Samantha is both relieved and grateful Rebus is there, but also angry and resentful at his presence, emotions pent up from her childhood. Always an outsider, Rebus is even more outside his element in a strange town. Lacking a badge, he has no official standing in the investigation, which the local detective keeps telling him. The historical aspects of WWII POW camps located throughout Scotland and now nearly forgotten add another dimension.

“A Song for the Dark Times” doesn’t miss a note in showcasing Rankin’s strong storytelling.

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