Sunday, December 31, 2006

Crime: Hannibal Rising and The Naming of the Dead

Well, the Thomas Harris was disappointing and the Ian Rankin wasn't.

I've always loved Harris's imagination and the dense weave of his dark materials, but Hannibal Rising, if you wanted to get harsh about it, is somehow simultaneously over the top and thin, and sloppy and hysterical with it.

I still like the idea of a contemporary personality with its roots in the Second World War, though. Apart from anything else it turns on the thesis that we are shaped largely by our times and cannot be extracted from them. I think it's Anthony Lane, in that great piece Laura linked to in the comments on the Dec 12 post, who makes the point that quite a lot of people got out of WW2 without turning into cannibals and murderers, but Harris knows that perfectly well and there's another character in the novel who's been equally exposed to unimaginable horror, the wildly exotic Japanese step-auntie, yet who seems relatively psychologically undamaged. Nature and nurture are duelling banjos, as any sibling knows.

And the book does have one moment, not to be giving away the plot or anything, that does resonate deeply with the Hannibal character as conceived and written in the earlier books: the idea that once a taboo is broken it cannot be unbroken, and the break releases the breaker into a kind of nightmare freedom where anything is permitted. Harris wisely does not go on about this even as much as I just have in that last sentence. He just shows you and lets you work it out.

The new Ian Rankin, I'm glad to say, is not one of the Organised Crime and Corruption at the Top ones that I've always found relatively boring just because I'm so much more interested in serious loonies than I am in boys' toys and games. The Naming of the Dead does in fact have both organised crime and corruption at the top in it -- Rebus's old nemesis Morris Gerald Cafferty features prominently, and Rankin even seems to be taking a leaf out of Harris's book (as it were) by lightly playing up the similarity of mind between criminal and detective, a la Sherlock Holmes's last stand at the Reichenbach Falls -- but the (really excellent) plot turns on a single deranged person, and the way that people can get caught up and woven into other people's nets.

And as Rebus ages you can see more and more clearly how Rankin got to be where he is, because he's now well into that thing that all the really good crime writers with one major sleuthy character do: they progress the life story of their detective figure through the self-contained events of each novel, and one of the great pleasures of reading the books is to watch the writers working along the two axes at once.

(Val McDiarmid's brilliant turn in The Last Temptation with Tony Hill and Carol Jordan's everlasting UST -- to make Carol as sexually damaged as Tony and prolong the agony for another God-knows-how-long -- is a case in point. Apparently there's a new Tony Hill novel due in September. They'd better get on with it before they get too old to care.)

Rebus, however, is now cruising for the end of his working life. Watch Siobhan. I always thought it was a crying shame that P.D. James let her Cordelia Gray character slide in favour of concentrating on the increasingly smug and annoying Adam Dalgliesh, and I hope that Rankin won't make the same kind of decision.


Perry Middlemiss said...

From interviews Rankin has given over the past year or so it appears he will be "retiring" Rebus in the next book, or the one after. Well, retiring him from the police anyway.

Reading between the lines, you can also hear him talking up Siobhan's role.

This latest from Rankin ranks up there with his best. For a while now he's been writing political novels masquerading as crime novels. The good thing about this is that he doesn't preach too much. You get the idea which side of the fence he sits on but he is willing to allow his characters from the other side to have their say as well. It's not all black and white with him.

Perry Middlemiss said...

John Connolly, author of a number of horror/crime novels, has an interesting take on the new Harris book. (

Basically he's disappointed it took so long and doesn't see any progression in Harris's work over time.