Set in Darkness is the eleventh book in Rankin's Inspector Rebus series and it's one of the better ones. It takes place in the late 1990s, with Scotland on the brink of its first Parliament for almost 300 years. A prospective MSP is murdered, a tramp commits suicide and a long-dead corpse is discovered by workmen building the new Parliament building. It appears that the three deaths are connected. I enjoy a good mystery now and then and this was a nice quick read after some of the heavier books I've read this year. Unfortunately, the quality of the books I've read in the last few months did make me more aware of the weaknesses in Rankin's writing. He's not a bad writer but he certainly isn't likely to trouble the Booker judges - despite his recent calls for crime fiction to be considered for the big prizes.
The main obstacle to Rankin's acceptance as a 'literary' writer is his reliance on cliche. Rebus, like almost every fictional cop, doesn't play by the rules, is unable to maintain a stable relationship, follows hunches that baffle his colleagues and barely exists when he isn't working. He has a drink problem but it only ever affects him in ways that are convenient to the plot. All fictional detectives need a quirky passion and for Rebus it's a love of Seventies rock - especially prog. Finally, his disregard for authority means that he is taken 'off the case', threatened with suspension or actually suspended in what seems like every book.
All of which probably makes the Rebus novels sound a dead loss but they aren't. Rankin has a good eye for local detail and a knack of relating his cases to wider issues. Set in Darkness, as you might imagine, deals with political power and its abuses, its predecessor, Dead Souls, examined child abuse, before that came The Hanging Garden, with war crimes as its theme, and Black and Blue about big business, specifically the oil industry.
Rankin is also very good at managing the variety of complex threads which make up his later novels. His characters are charismatic and develop as the series goes on. Lastly, I like the fact that Rankin doesn't feel obliged to end every book with Rebus getting his man - Set in Darkness ends without anyone being brought to justice, though the mystery is tied up satisfactorily.
Without doubt this was the weakest book I've read this year but that says more about the others than it does about this one. Rankin is still a cut above most crime writers and this was an enjoyable read.