A key figure in Edinburgh's criminal underworld, Darryl Christie, is viciously attacked and beaten up on his own driveway in an upmarket area of Edinburgh. Who's behind it and why? It's not John Rebus's problem. It shouldn't be, anyway. He's a civilian now, retired from a police force which has undergone dramatic restructuring across Scotland. No, John, who has finally given up smoking and cut down on the drink, now busies himself walking his dog and romancing an Edinburgh pathologist. But a story he starts to tell her over dinner in the Caledonian Hotel awakens a long-buried desire to get to the bottom of a case he was peripherally involved in very early in his career. Who murdered beautiful socialite Maria Turquand in a room in that same hotel on 17 October 1978? There were plenty of suspects, but just as many alibis, and the enquiry ran into the ground.
Rebus asks DI Sioban Clarke for the files, and finds out from them that others have also been interested in the case. The murder was reviewed as a cold case following an article that had been published about it, but again without reaching any conclusion or making an arrest. Then an ex-policeman he talks to about the case turns up dead, and it seems that the cold case may be heating up. Meanwhile DI Sioban Clarke is trying to track down the identity of Darryl Christie's attacker. Until she finds herself displaced by a team parachuted in from Police Scotland HQ near Glasgow, a team that includes DI Malcolm Fox. In the background are suspicions about the laundering of dirty money from eastern Europe through partnerships set up in Edinburgh involving supposedly respectable businessmen and hardened criminals.
"Rather Be the Devil" by Ian Rankin is a hugely entertaining ensemble piece in which Rebus, Clarke and Fox find themselves pursuing parallel lines of enquiry that seem destined to meet, probably violently. On the wrong side of the fence, the key actors are Darryl Christie and Big Ger Cafferty, both fixtures in a number of "Rebus" novels. If many of the characters are familiar, there is a freshness of feel to this 21st outing for Rebus which adds greatly to its attraction. We've seen Rebus struggling to avoid retirement across several novels, and struggling to cope with it once before. But now he seems to be finding his feet as a free agent: albeit a free agent happy to walk unannounced (and sometimes unwanted) into Edinburgh police stations or to use business cards "borrowed" from DI Fox to persuade people to talk to him.
Perhaps inevitably, the strands do converge and the story picks up pace as is builds towards a thoroughly enjoyable climax: a climax which you get the feeling the author might have had at the back of his mind over the course of a number of earlier Rebus novels. Who did attack Darryl Christie, and why? Who murdered the ex-policemen, and why? You'll have to read "Rather Be the Devil" yourself and find out. But it's too much to hope that Rebus will also get to the bottom of the 1978 murder before the book reaches its end, isn't it?