"Rebus is back" says the banner on the front cover of "Standing in Another Man's Grave". He is, and the result is an outstanding whodunit, a book that should be read by anyone wanting to experience the very best of modern crime fiction. It is high praise indeed to suggest that this is the finest book Ian Rankin has ever written: but in our view it is.
The new Rebus feels grittier than the character we remember, though perhaps more complex and self aware as well. Five years after his retirement we find him working in Lothian and Borders Police's Serious Crime Review Unit under the leadership, if that's the right word, of an ambitious Detective Sergeant. Rebus always seemed something of an outsider, and now he really is: no longer an actual policemen, and regarded as a relic of another era by many around him. Chief amongst those who see Rebus as a dinosaur who should stop resisting extinction is Inspector Malcolm Fox and his team from the Ethics and Standards Unit, the central character in Ian Rankin's last two novels. More seriously, Fox also thinks Rebus is a bent cop, an impression Rebus does little to quell with his regular meetings with his long time adversary, the one time crime boss Big Ger Cafferty.
Rebus's interest is sparked by a meeting with the mother of a girl who disappeared in the Highlands years before, and this causes him to look at other disappearances, one of which is a live case being investigated by a team including his old colleague, Detective Inspector Siobhan Clark. The scene is set for an investigation that becomes ever larger and more complex, and more chilling, as it moves past a series of "false summit" conclusions that leave the reader guessing until the very end. And in the background Malcolm Fox is doing all he can to ensure that Rebus's desire to rejoin CID on a permanent basis is thwarted.
It isn't only the character of Rebus that has evolved during his five year absence from view. Ian Rankin's style has also developed, and the result is a Rebus novel drawn on a much broader canvas than earlier books in the series, with what feels like a much larger cast of characters. Rebus always came over as a city boy at heart, and despite a trip to Jura in one book, seldom strayed far beyond the second most significant character in the earlier books, Edinburgh itself. Important parts of the action in "Standing in Another Man's Grave" are set in Highland Perthshire and in the northern Highlands, and we follow Rebus to places like Pitlochry, Edderton, Rosemarkie and Dornoch, and to Tongue in the far north and Durness in the far north west. The best novel we've read in 2012? It's difficult to think of any that have been better.