Inspector Malcolm Fox is a man challenged by the past, on more than one level. Firstly, within the confines of this novel, he stumbles across a hushed-up 25-year-old mystery that his superiors are determined to let lie. Secondly, as a fictional character, he’ll always be compared to his predecessor, Rebus.
Scottish author Ian Rankin rose to fame on the shoulders of his much-loved literary creation Detective Inspector John Rebus, a man to whom the rule book was an impediment rather than a guiding light. Rebus aged in real time across 17 books, which meant that in 2007 he was due for retirement. Despite a tongue-in-cheek suggestion in the Scottish parliament that police retirement age be raised to 65 — yes, Rebus was that popular — Rankin complied, to the devastation of his fans.
Two years later, in the novel The Complaints, Rankin introduced Inspector Malcolm Fox of the Complaints and Conduct office, the ‘cops who investigate other cops’. A quiet and abstemious man, Fox was beige where Rebus was multi-coloured, and readers’ hearts sank. But in a taut plot, Fox’s professional and private lives were threatened, and his calculating response reassured readers that that this beige protagonist was a complex soul, and surprising intriguing.
In The Impossible Dead, Fox and his sidekicks are back, investigating a possible cover-up. Did the copper mates of disgraced Detective Constable Paul Carter know about his habit of turning a blind eye in exchange for sexual favours? As part of the investigation, Fox visits the remote home of Carter’s one-time policeman uncle, and the person who reported his nephew’s misconduct. Not long after, the uncle is found dead, Carter is in the frame for the murder, and only Fox believes him innocent — especially when he begins to explore the connection between the dead man and the 1985 death of a high-profile lawyer with links to violent activists.
Fox steps outside his remit to look into the case, a (not entirely convincing) motivation being his uncertainty about whether he’s ‘cut out for a life outside the Complaints’. He’s due to return to the CID ‘in a year or two’ and his aging father is taunting him what he does isn’t ‘real’ detective work.
In one of Fox’s frequent moments of self-examination, we learn:
Fox hadn’t encountered too much violence or tragedy during his years on the force. A few drunken fights to break up when he’d been in uniform; a couple of bad murder cases in CID. Part of the appeal of the complaints had been its focus on rules broken rather than bones, on cops who crossed the line but were not violent men. Did that make him a coward? He didn’t think so. Less of a copper? Again, no.
The twists of story show Fox to be anything but cowardly and, given his time in the Complaints and Conduct office is limited, leave us wondering what Rankin plans for him next. Meanwhile, a second story line focuses with great sensitivity on Fox’s family: his father whose health is failing and his troubled sister Jude. Once again, Rankin has created a complex novel that is much more than a crime story, and inched further down the path of laying Rebus to rest.