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Ian Rankin's success is most definitely of his own doing. His writing style is brilliant: such intricacies in his text have always made that extra step from quality fiction to top quality, putting him among the very best of his time. However, at the same time, he is also a victim of his most successful creation: John Rebus.
The Edinburgh detective has developed over a couple of decades and a good many books, with the final Rebus book (as we understand it) no doubt leaving a bigger hole in his life than it has in any of ours. In picking up the pen again, the pressure must have been higher than ever. With the Rebus books, there was always a predetermined focal point to each story, that of the rebellious and gruff Inspector himself. Here, in Doors Open, the characters are all new, and therefore less developed than an old timer like Rebus.
Rankin still has the ability to bring in the little intricacies that I love so much about his writing, but in this plot, there is a little inconsistency to add to it, as well as things being just that little bit too much improbable and events in this heist tale unfold. There are three central characters, as friends Mike, Allan and Robert discuss over a beer one day the possibility of stealing a bunch of priceless paintings that are being permanently kept in storage and are therefore not wasted where they are as well as being inaccessible to those who may want to display them proudly, but they're also unlikely to go unnoticed.
As the general chat about the theft develops from half hearted suggestion to realistic idea and then to definite event, it's the various little plot developments and other characters who come into the story that become the strong support to Rankin's efforts here. I really liked how the story progressed and brought in the various characters, as well as taking events from earlier in the book and making them relevant later on in it.
With this, though, it's hard not to compare the story to something from a Rebus book. It may be easy to say that comparison here is not fair, and that just because it's Rankin writing it we shouldn't be judging it on this. However, it's hard not to, and there are indications of Rebus all over the place, from the rebellious police inspector to the local gangster, the descriptive element of Edinburgh to the occasional twist in the plot. It's so similar in so many ways to the familiar Rebus books that I have loved reading that comparisons were hard not to make.
And it came up a bit short, I have to say. It's a good story, with a decent plot and well developed characters, so please don't get me wrong: I did enjoy reading it. But it didn't seem to have the finished article about it like the Rebus books did. The perils never seem too great, even when a foreign Hell's Angels heavy starts dishing out some punishment. There is a little tension, and the pace does gather as the book goes along. However, just when you expect a sustained period of riveting writing, it starts to dwindle down and then becomes less effective.
I think that Rankin is always going to produce good work. I have read all of his work, and not just the Rebus books, and everything is well written. However, now he has lain down the Rebus saga, a new thread needs to emerge, or a new style or identity needs to come out. I feel that as long as he focuses on crime in Edinburgh, the comparisons will always be drawn and Rebus will always come out on top. Rankin has an excellent style, but this was not up to the standards his usual work seems to be. Recommended, but don't necessarily expect a gem as you usually would.
Doors Open - Ian Rankin
Before I talk about the book 'Doors Open' written by Ian Rankin let me tell you a little story of my own.
Many years ago I was the chief cashier in a branch of a high street bank. It was a small branch with a low foot flow of customers. However, it was in the very wealthy Belgravia area of London so what customers we did have were of the well heeled variety, premiership footballers and senior politicians were regulars. Even if they weren't famous many of our customers were titled and came from famous families. These customers requested a lot of cash over the counter so we would hold rather more in our safe than similar sized branches elsewhere. Most weeks this would be around two to three hundred thousand pounds, at busy times it could reach perhaps three quarters of a million pounds.
The money was held in a safe, the safe was in a vault secured by a barred gate during the day and a thick steel door over night. Once sealed, the alarm would be set; the alarm was monitored but not time-locked and each member of staff had their own code. Each stage required two key holders (red and blue for differentiation) who would have the keys and combinations for one half of each lock. Half the branch staff would be red key holders and the other would be blue. I was a red key holder.
My colleague, a blue key holder, and I would regularly go for a post work drink and do you know what we often discussed? Robbing the bank, obviously. Or, more exactly; robbing the bank and getting away with it.
You see that's the tricky bit. With a bit of careful planning I could probably have shepherded the cash balance up to one and half million, perhaps even two, on a one off occasion without drawing too much attention. Being joint key holders we could have emptied the safe on a Friday and no one would be any wiser until Monday morning by which time we would have been in Brazil. You see, getting the money - actually committing the crime would have been a piece of cake. Unfortunately, having used our own codes everyone would have known it was us who had done it so the 'getting away with it' part would have been a bit tricky. The point is; two nice middle class boys like us just weren't set up to be master criminals. I mean, just how do you go about getting fake passports and so on. It was a nice idea to get our hands on a million or so but the idea of spending the rest of our lives on the run was less appealing. Despite some very serious thinking and some very serious drinking there was no obvious way round this and the plans were filed in their rightful place. Under 'S' for Stupid Ideas.
Which leads me nicely onto the book where three nice middle class boys discuss, over drinks obviously, how nice it would be to steal priceless paintings. This is perfectly natural given the three men in question. There is Professor Robert Gissing, head of the Art department at the University. There is Allan Cruikshank, high flying banker with an appreciation (if not the budget) for fine art and finally there is Mike MacKenzie, a software entrepreneur who having recently sold his company for millions, has found a worthy outlet for his new found wealth in collecting expensive paintings.
They meet informally but regularly at exhibitions and auctions across the city, each time expressing their frustration at the exclusionary cost of classic art (Cruikshank), frustration that the best pieces are hidden from public view in warehouses and corporate collections (Gissing) and frustration that the pieces that they would want to own will never come onto the market anyway (MacKenzie). They idly discuss the inequities of this and joke about how they could remedy the situation. They talk of stealing paintings but it is all in jest, these are nice middle class boys after all and cold blooded thievery such as this is not really very likely.
However, one evening Gissing proposes a plan that is both plausible and achievable. Under cover of the Open Door day (the day when many private buildings open up to the public) they can go into the National Gallery Warehouse, swap masterpieces for fakes and leave no one the wiser. A perfect, victimless, white collar crime it would seem. Hmm, we'll see about that.
Doors Open is the first novel written by Ian Rankin since he pensioned off his most famous character, John Rebus. Retiring a character as popular (and lucrative) as Rebus was a brave choice for the writer and he would have known that his next few publications would be crucial. Rankin has built a large following (I know, I'm one of them) with the Rebus series, a ready market for his next book but the question is; are we Rankin fans or Rebus fans? Most Rebus loyalists will buy this book but if the author doesn't deliver many will drift away.
I fear that with this book Rankin does indeed risk losing a significant number of his readership. It just doesn't have the quality of his earlier work, and it doesn't move far enough away from the Rebus books to hide this. The infamous detective may have gone away but this is still a crime story set in Edinburgh, and includes a tenacious detective willing to go against his superiors to investigate a crime. The Rebus stories were built on a collection of very strong and well defined characters. Rebus himself, obviously, but with support (dramatically at least) from Detective Sergeant Clarke and the gangster Cafferty each episode was driven and defined primarily by character. In Doors Open all the characters have a vagueness about them, a lack of definition and the reader doesn't really get close to any of them and therefore any emotional engagement is missing.
The story is a lot lighter in tone than the Rebus series, even when some unpleasant gangsters become involved in the boy's plans things don't feel particularly serious. Unfortunately this lightness is less to do with any humour, Rankin doesn't really do 'funny', and more to do with the story and plot being very lightweight. It was an ongoing frustration with the story that throughout there was a lack of believability and logic in both the plot and the characters.
Three regular guys talking about stealing millions of pounds worth of art I can live with. The three guys coming up with a feasible plan for committing the crime, and having access to the necessary forging skills, I can also believe - like I said in the completely true introduction there are occasions when the commission of a crime is not that difficult. While it remains a plan and a crime that is unlikely to be noticed, or discovered for many years, it all makes sense but once the theft escalates to a full on armed heist with intimidation of security guards and deception of officials and police its credibility begins to creak.
It just does not make sense that these characters would act in the way that they do. None of them are under personal pressure, or driven by desperation. They could all have backed out at any point and there is no satisfying explanation for them committing a crime of this nature. Once this central plank has been undermined there is little left to raise the book above the ordinary. No humour, no suspense, even the old Rankin standby of Edinburgh itself is unutilised and all that is left is deeply unsatisfying.
For a writer as talented as Rankin this is a curious state of affairs. Doors Open feels very much like a book written early in a writer's career but left unpublished, brought to light only once a reputation has been created. To see that it is a new book and, further, the one chosen to launch his post-Rebus career is perplexing. If this was the only Rankin book I'd read I'm not sure I would have read another. Maybe I was just a Rebus fan after all, what a shame.
What do you do if you're a best selling crime author who has just closed the door on your most successful character after 17 novels and a lifespan covering 20 years?
This is the question that faced Scots author Ian Rankin when he finally closed the door on Detective Inspector John Rebus of the Lothian's and Borders Police back in 2007 with the final novel in the Rebus series, appropriately called "Exit Music".
Well, if you're Ian Rankin, you immediately sit down and pen another cracking crime novel, this time without the hard drinking, chain smoking, womanising, Detective Inspector as your leading character; and appropriately you call it "Doors Open". Of course, Rankin hasn't strayed too far from basics and what made him so successful, and sets the novel squarely in his home city of Edinburgh in Scotland.
The central character of the novel is Mike Mackenzie, a young dot com millionaire with time on his hands now he has sold off his software company. You know what they say; "the devil makes work for idle hands" (well, they say it in Scotland) and art loving Mackenzie has plenty of free time and a bulging bank account, and is fast growing very bored with the lifestyle of a idle playboy and man about town.
To spice up his life he comes up with a plan to relieve the National Gallery of Scotland of some of its prestigious (and expensive!) paintings in a daring heist and inveigles a couple of his wealthy friends in the art and financial world to join him. The beauty of the plan is that Mackenzie has no intention of ever getting caught, the difficult trick being to convince the authorities that no paintings are actually missing!
Unfortunately, while Mackenzie might have the logic and ability to conceive of such a plan, he lacks the criminal contacts and cop on to actually turn it into a reality, and so involves one of the biggest gangsters in the city to provide the muscle and criminal know how. This is when things begin to go haywire, and double cross follows double cross in a novel which winds its way to a nail biting conclusion.
So what did I think of the book, and does Rankin successfully manage the transformation from a "one character" author following the demise of Rebus?
Let's deal with the second part of the question first. The truth is that Rankin never really *WAS* a one character author. It's true that Rebus was/is his single most successful character, and the one who brought him both riches and prestige as a writer. (Including various literary awards and an O.B.E. in 2002) But early in his career he also wrote three other novels under the pseudonym "Jack Harvey" which though not best sellers at the time were none the less excellent crime fiction in their own right. (They sell better now than they did when they were first published in the early 1990's) In "Doors Open" Rankin has shown that he is not a "one man" writer, and that he can produce a superbly crafted and well written crime thriller without recourse to the legendary Inspector Rebus.
The book was serialised in the New York Times before it came out in hardback and paperback in September 2008, and immediately shot to the top of the bestseller lists. Of course, as the UK's top selling crime writer this was almost a certainty with his first non-Rebus novel simply because of the curiosity value. A better indication of whether or not he is still so beloved by the book reading public will be to watch how well his second non-Rebus novel sells. (Which is due for publication some time in 2009)
And did I like the book? You bet I did. Rankin has lost none of his literary ability, and still has the best selling crime author's touch of riveting the reader to the page, eager to discover "what's next". Rebus or no Rebus, I personally believe that Ian Rankin will still be a top crime author for decades to come.
"Doors Open" is available at all the usual online sources (Amazon, eBay, etc) and at all decent bookshops. Currently selling at Amazon in the UK for £9.49 (hardback) and at £8.99 (paperback) it's also available as an audio book for the blind and those with poor sight at £17.49.
Highly recommended to all Ian Rankin and crime novel fans.
© KenJ Dec 2008