The Naming of the Dead is the seventeenth novel in Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series, set in Edinburgh, which follows the rather gloomy career of DI John Rebus. Over the course of the series, which unfolds in real time, Rebus has managed to mislay his religious faith, his wife, his daughter, his brother (whose unexpected death haunts this novel), various friends, some girlfriends, and the occasional colleague; nevertheless, he still holds on to his longtime working partner, DS Siobhan Clarke (a transplanted Englishwoman), his mob-boss nemesis, his drinking habits, and his rock albums. Rebus suffers from cop-itis, that state of advanced alienation frequently associated with homicide detectives, not to mention a chronic inability to play well with his superiors. As Clarke reminds herself, there's a reason why Rebus has never been promoted. The Rebus series is very much in "British grim" mode, and this installment manages to be even more elegiac than usual.
Rankin has always been interested in how Edinburgh (and Scotland more generally) rubs up against other cities, regions, nations, and cultures, and this novel's mystery takes place during the G8 meeting and the demonstrations surrounding it. As the world converges on Edinburgh, Edinburgh itself is fragmented by regional rivalries, Anglo-Scottish tensions, generational clashes, class conflict, departmental politics, and gender warfare. Such strife also characterizes the novel's main plot, in which Rebus and Clarke investigate the death (suicide? accident? murder?) of politician Ben Webster and the apparently unrelated serial murders of three various nasty ex-cons. Alas, an unpleasant Englishman, Commander Steelforth, throws a number of monkey wrenches into Rebus' plans. Things are not materially improved by the appearance of Morris Cafferty, the aging thug who has dogged Rebus for most of the series--and who now has his eyes on Clarke. And then there's the matter of the local evangelist-cum-politician, Tench, who has been cheating on his wife with the sister of another police officer. Steelforth's interests in G8 security interfere with the CID investigation; Cafferty interferes with both Tench and the serial killer investigation. Meanwhile, Rebus is uncomfortably aware of both his own aging and the disappearance of anything in his life resembling family ties, as Clarke confronts her own anxious distance from her sixties-liberal academic parents. Such familial conflicts play out at more figurative levels, too: in getting herself enmeshed with Cafferty, too, Clarke threatens to inadvertently repeat Rebus' not-altogether distinguished history with the force. Behind all of this, of course, lie the novel's frequently cynical observations about the political glad-handing and double-crossing that pass for international philanthropy.
Unlike the more stylistically adventurous Reginald Hill, whose characters do not age in real time, Rankin has never been afraid of historical particularity. This novel threatens to be even more accidentally ephemeral than most, studded as it is with references to rock stars, politicians, and minor celebrities--not to mention CSI--that will probably all need footnotes in about ten or twenty years. In effect, The Naming of the Dead is a historical novel of sorts, albeit of a rather cheeky type. (Read the novel to find out why George Bush really fell off his bike.) And perhaps it's appropriate that most of the novel's contemporary allusions will be "lost" to later readers, for in the end, this is very much a novel about the permanence of loss--and the sense of futility that nags at those who solve mysteries, but cannot restore what is gone. Or, as Clarke says to Rebus:
"It's not enough, is it?" she repeated. "Just...symbolic...because there's nothing else you can do."
"What are you talking about?" he asked, with a smile.
"The naming of the dead," she told him, resting her head against his shoulder. (410)