‘How can you do it? How can you spit on your own kind?’ (The Complaints)
Ian Rankin admits that by setting the Rebus novels in real time, he had placed himself in a straightjacket. In Scotland, detectives must retire at 60, so at the end of Exit Music in 2007, Rebus has his retirement dinner and heads off into the sunset… or rather to the cold cases unit staffed by retired Lothian and Borders detectives.
After some time away from novel writing, Ian read a newspaper article about the Complaints and Conduct department of a UK police force; he was intrigued. These were the cops that investigated other cops – Internal Affairs, and they were universally disliked and feared by their fellow officers. They operated as spies on the inside, setting up surveillance, following the rules to the letter – and making enemies that they would then have to work with again in the future. They were chosen from the regular police force but would have to have a particular mindset to do the job and be slow, cautious and meticulous, in other words the direct opposite of Rebus. Ian wangled an interview with an ex-Complaints officer to find out more and it whetted his appetite to create a new character, still very much at the heart of the Edinburgh police scene but an ‘outsider’. What if he took a cop from Complaints and turned his life inside out – making him the victim of an investigation, forcing him to cross the line, take action and break the rules? And so Malcolm Fox was born.
The first Fox book is called, simply, The Complaints. At the time of writing it, everyone in Edinburgh seemed to be voicing some complaint or other: if it wasn’t rumblings about the roadworks surrounding the tram reinstatement, then it was the crisis with the banks or even just the awful weather. Fox is not ‘Rebus lite’: he is his own man and very different to Rebus psychologically. He is hardworking and pernickety; a team player, not cynical like Rebus, and not a drinker. Long teetotal, he is an interesting character who is somewhat repressed: he is divorced, has a difficult relationship with his father who is in a care home, and he and his sister are distanced. In fact it is when his sister’s boyfriend is murdered and Fox himself becomes a suspect that his world implodes: the hunter becomes the hunted. In The Complaints and the next Fox book The Impossible Dead, Fox is established as a very likeable hero – one of the good guys, but this changed in the subsequent book.
Standing in Another Man’s Grave saw Rebus return, the age for retirement raised and Rebus with the chance of re-applying for his old job. But would he be seen as a fit applicant by The Complaints? Fox investigates the skeletons that come rattling out of Rebus’s closet. Thus Ian’s two main characters meet on the page, and Fox becomes the villain of the piece, the antagonist: his priggish morality trying to block the maverick Rebus at every turn. ‘I know a cop gone bad when I see one. Rebus has spent so many years crossing the line he’s managed to rub it out altogether.’ (Standing in Another Man’s Grave)
Ian turns this on its head in Saints of the Shadow Bible; Fox and Rebus are forced to work together, and gradually come to an understanding of what makes the other tick in such a way that there is a grudging empathy between them. Fox is rehabilitated for the reader, and Rebus is back on the force, with Fox not far behind him.