As long promised, Ian Rankin sends Inspector John Rebus off into the sunset--not quietly, of course--in Exit Music, the eighteenth novel in the series. Rankin sets the novel during Rebus' final ten days on the force, as the aging detective tries to negotiate his relationship with sidekick DS Siobhan Clarke (simultaneously reluctant to see Rebus go and chomping at the bit to take over), various unpleasant higher-ups, an ambitious PC named Todd Goodyear, and, last but certainly not least, his long-time nemesis, the gangster Morris "Big Ger" Cafferty. All of this takes place amidst a scenario involving the murders of a Russian dissident-poet and an obsessive sound editor. Meanwhile, in the background, we hear rumbles about Scottish independence and the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.
Not surprisingly, Rebus contemplates his looming retirement with more dismay than relief. The novel dwells heavily on the tension between Rebus' still-functional skills as a crack investigator and his gloomy sense that he is, in some way, a cultural anachronism. Old heroes like Jack Palance die, and yet Rebus' younger colleagues haven't a slightest clue who they are; old professions, like prostitution, have new names; old technologies, like record players and even CD players, are slowly giving way to iPods. But Rankin is too sharp a novelist to turn Rebus into a symbol of policework past. Exit Music doesn't pack Rebus (or Big Ger, for that matter) off to the historical scrap heap; instead, it emphasizes that past and present interlock, that characters and countries can reach some accomodation with modernity--grouchily, to be sure--without entirely losing their identities. After all, Clarke gives Rebus an iPod for his retirement party, loaded with "'The Stones, Who, Wishbone Ash...you name it'" (364).
This being Rankin, of course, such interlocking may be negative as well as positive, and takes place across class as well as across time. Big Ger's diversification efforts, for example, put him smack in the middle of Scotland's plans for economic development; from Rebus' point of view, a new, independent Scotland will be no purer than the current variety. Rebus glumly muses to himself that, left alone, Cafferty will be "free to commute between underworld and overworld" (189), that is, the extremes of crime-ridden poverty and entitled wealth. For Rebus, Scotland's structures of power, both criminal and legitimate, are essentially ahistorical, persisting into an apparently limitless future; in that interpretation, Scottish independence is a fake future, a supposed break with the past that will really only reinforce the divisions of the present. It's no wonder that Rebus, whose Christian faith in the earliest novels has long since lapsed, takes no interest in politics. (One does not read Rankin for uplift.)
Speaking of interpretation: detective fiction is the most metafictional of popular genres, thanks to its preoccupation with plotting and interpretation. While Exit Music hardly aspires to postmodern experimentalism, it does play some wry games with the reader's expectations. Both Rebus and the reader expect--and, in Rebus' case, seek--the conventional genre climax, something of a Reichenbach Falls moment. The Great Detective meets his Professor Moriarty! Instead, Exit Music deconstructs this plotline, warning instead that sometimes, there's "less to this than meets the eye" (343). The key word is "sometimes," since another genre staple--the revenge plot--does work out exactly as advertised. Here, it's not just the crimes that are shrouded in mystery, but also the author's use of traditional mystery techniques. For all that Rebus seems to endorse that old saw, "the more things change, the more things stay the same," the narrative itself holds out hope--not for the possibility of a drastic change in the human condition, but for the possibility of the uncertain, an indeterminate future. Unlike Stephen Booth's recent Dying to Sin, which makes a cliffhanger out of a character's bleak declarative statement about her future, Exit Music ends on a question that could apply to more than one character: "'Is he going to be all right?' he heard himself ask. 'Tell me he's going to be all right...'" (380)