The Edgar Awards Revisited: Resurrection Men by Ian Rankin (Best Novel, 2004)
By Nicolás ObregónDecember 20, 2019
Rebus doesn’t just prowl Edinburgh for wrong-doing, he is Edinburgh, and the city flows within his veins.
2004 was a strange year. At least in terms of awards, if nothing else. Clocks by Coldplay picked up Record of the Year at the Grammy’s, inexplicably beating Hey Ya! by OutKast. Across town, at the Oscars, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won Best Picture instead of Mystic River. (Peter Jackson also somehow won Best Director despite Fernando Meirelles giving us City of God). Meanwhile, in my native England, there was no justice even for dogs, with a whippet by the name of Deedee winning Best in Show at that most venerable of venues, Crufts. (Everyone knows Puzzle the Scottish Terrier was robbed).
Thank goodness, then, for the 2004 Edgars, in which a Scot did manage to claim the big prize. Resurrection Men was crowned Best Novel despite some very honorable competition. It was a year that introduced us to the eponymous nominee Maisie Dobbs—winner of the Agatha Award—a tremendous character living in a well-hewn pre- and post-First World War Britain. Also in the running was Ken Bruen’s The Guards, a mesmerizing exploration of Galway and the Irish police, the Gardaí. Last but certainly not least, Rankin was up against Natsuo Kirino’s Out, which, for me, is a masterpiece and, as I told the Tokyo Weekender earlier this year, one of my all-time favorite books. Sparse, poetic, kinetic, it’s a masterclass in the crafting of domestic mystery and how one split second can change lives forever. And yet, while in all honesty, the Edgar could have gone to any one of the nominees, it’s clear that in the passing of time Inspector Rebus has proved to be an abiding figure in the genre.
Though it needs none, Rankin’s much-beloved series merits a proper introduction. With more than twenty novels on the shelves spanning decades and an international following, Inspector Rebus has reached almost mythical status. Like a heavyweight champion that, despite advancing years, just can’t find a worthy contender, Rankin’s creation has become the very embodiment of hardboiled. Rebus doesn’t just prowl Edinburgh for wrong-doing, he is Edinburgh, and the city flows within his veins.
Portrayed by Scottish screen royalty in both John Hannah and Ken Stott for the television, there have also been many well-received Rebus BBC Radio adaptations down the years, even a stage play in 2018 by the respected Rona Munro. And, lest we forget, one of Edinburgh’s most famous sons, Sean Connery, once told the Scottish press, were he a younger man he’d love to play the city’s most famous murder investigator for a movie.
And so to the Resurrection Men themselves.
When Inspector John Rebus is thrown off a murder inquiry for the most forgivable of infractions—who hasn’t wanted to throw a cup of tea at their boss?—he’s sent to a remote Scottish police institution for re-education. He expects a routine slap on the wrists. What he finds instead is a snake pit of rebel cops known as the Resurrection Men—a nod to the infamous 19th Century body-snatchers—who have more on their minds than trust exercises and toss-the-ball. For these obstreperous colleagues are suspected of being involved in a dastardly drug heist. But, as is so often the case in superior crime fiction, all is not as it seems. Rebus isn’t really on a refresher course, he’s undercover. And now, tasked by headquarters with uncovering the truth, he must tread carefully amongst men who take no issue with spilling blood while, at the same time, juggling his own secrets.
Like McIlvanney before him, the father of Tartan Noir, Rankin paints his city with a simple grit, not a wasted word in sight. Edinburgh is a tough place, a city of hard men. It’s also full of quiet loneliness and beautiful urban frescoes:
They’d arranged to meet on the towpath of the Union Canal, half a mile from the cab office. It was a route Rebus hadn’t taken in many a year. He could smell yeast from the local brewery. Birds were paddling in the canal’s oily water. Coots? Moorhens? He’d never been good with names.
But for me the real pleasure in this novel is found in the company of its characters. Beyond the powerhouse of wit, pain, and wisdom that is Rebus, Resurrection Men is brimming with memorable parts. Whether a dead art dealer or a snitch in an alleyway, Rankin is a Rembrandt with his characterisation. These characters stay with you, not just for their authenticity, or their actions, or their dialogue, but for their humanity. Whether they’ve got their mouths shut and are just walking from A to B:
On the street, Weasel would be taken for a transient, someone not worth bothering, or bothering about. This was his skill. Chauffeured Jaguars took him around the city, doing Big Ger Cafferty’s work. But as soon as he stepped from them, he got in character again and became as conspicuous as a piece of litter.
Or whether they’re letting each other know what they think:
“That guy should be in porn films.”
Barclay frowned. “Why’s that then, Allan?”
Ward looked at him.
“Tell me, Tam, when did you last see a bigger prick?”
Resurrection Men was released, I believe, about halfway through the Rebus series. But for me, Rankin is very much at the top of his game here. His prose oscillates between soft, philosophical realizations, to rock n’ roll in the blink of an eye (or perhaps the dull thump of a headbutt). There’s a wonderfully enjoyable ripple effect, from the initial Rebus outburst, right through to its perfectly noirish, full-circle conclusion.
I was three years old in 1987 when Inspector Rebus was born. His latest installment, In a House of Lies, was released just last year. There’s a damn good reason for that. So, if you’ve never met Rebus, 2004’s Resurrection Men is as good a place to start as any.
Notes from the 2004 Edgar Awards:
- The other nominees for Best Novel were Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear, Out by Natsuo Kirino, and The Guards by Ken Bruen.
- Steven Knight’s Dirty Pretty Things won Best Motion Picture.
- Erik Larson’s masterful blending of a Chicago serial killer and the 1893 World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City, took home the award for Best Fact Crime.
- Joseph Wambaugh hosted the awards as The Grand Master.
- A Special Edgar was awarded to HBO in recognition for their creation and production of ground-breaking crime television.
- The Mary Higgins Clark Award was given to Song of the Bones by M.K. Preston.
- Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel won Best First Novel, ousting 12 Bliss Street by Martha Conway, Night of the Dance by James Hime, Offer of Proof by Robert Hellbrun, and The Bridge of Sighs by Olen Steinhauer.
We’ll see everyone back here next week as author Ellison Cooper stops by to review California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker, the 2005 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.