Inspector Malcolm Fox and his team from the Professional Ethics and Standards unit of Lothian and Borders Police are back. They've been asked to look into a possible attempted cover up by colleagues for a corrupt colleague in Fife Police in what should be, despite the ill will and obstruction of most of those they encounter, a straightforward job. But Ian Rankin never does "straightforward", and events in Fife begin to escalate quickly after the attempted suicide of a key witness and the unexplained violent death of another, this time with a gun supposedly destroyed decades earlier.
Why was the dead man researching another unexplained death, of a leading political activist, that took place in 1985? The story builds skilfully as Fox also begins to wonder why Special Branch have taken an interest in what he is doing, and whether the 1985 death was connected with separatist terrorist groups active in Scotland at the time. This is not so much a "whodunnit" as a "whodunwhat", and the gripping conclusion is all the more satisfying as the plot strands are drawn together to reveal the "what" as well as the "who".
This is Ian Rankin's second Malcolm Fox novel, following the retirement of his long running protagonist, Inspector John Rebus. Our fears about what could follow Rebus were put to rest in our first outing with Malcolm Fox in The Complaints; and in The Impossible Dead Ian Rankin has skilfully built on that excellent beginning to produce a book that keep you turning the pages to the very end. When Rebus was initially televised, John Hannah took the role, but could never quite convince as the older, gritty, hard-nosed, cop. Ken Stott later took over as Rebus and fitted the character perfectly. It is interesting to reflect that in Inspector Malcolm Fox, Ian Rankin has produced a policeman who would seem exactly right being played by John Hannah. He's younger and healthier than Rebus, and doesn't drink: though he does share his predecessor's ability to rub his senior officers up the wrong way, and his rather dysfunctional private life.
Ian Rankin has always been a good read, but over the years he has been getting better and better. The Impossible Dead is his best book yet, and it is certainly a "must read" for anyone who likes an intelligently written crime novel. Roll on the third book in the Malcolm Fox series...