Cover image of "A Heart Full of Headstones," a novel about police misbehavior

Since his early days as a patrolman in the 1970s, Detective Inspector John Rebus has “bent every rule to breaking point in pursuit of results, regarding every unsolved case as an affront.” He’s earned more than his share of attention from “the Complaints,” as Police Scotland‘s internal affairs unit is known. But most of the concern relates to his close relationship with Morris Gerald (“Big Ger”) Cafferty, Edinburgh’s mob boss. And now, decades later, with Big Ger confined to a wheelchair and Rebus himself ailing, that relationship continues. It’s the crux of the story in Ian Rankin’s tale of police misbehavior, A Heart Full of Headstones.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

A career of coloring outside the lines

Rebus’s colleagues can be forgiven for thinking that Big Ger “owns” Rebus, though that’s far from the case. In fact, Rebus stays close to him because he knows the gangster calls the shots in the criminal fraternity. Their relationship is antagonistic to a fault, and the inspector has never taken money from him for a favor. But Rebus merits attention from the Complaints for other reasons. “He’d broken laws and skewed evidence and taken bungs, arrested guilty people for crimes they hadn’t committed when he couldn’t hold them to account for the ones they’d actually carried out. He’d used his fists and his feet as weapons of intimidation.” And now all that seems to have caught up with him. Because Rebus stands on trial in court as the novel opens.

A Heart Full of Headstones (Inspector Rebus #24) by Ian Rankin (2022) 352 pages ★★★★★

City map of Edinburgh, a useful tool to use when reading this novel about police misbehavior
A map of Edinburgh like this one (available online) would be useful when reading this novel. Image: World Map

Police misbehavior links two seemingly unrelated cases

Now in his seventies, Rebus suffers from COPD, a grave pulmonary illness that has earned him an exemption from wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also experiences dizzy spells and chest pains that he refuses to report to a doctor. Much of the time he can be seen walking his little dog, Brillo, working an occasional case as a private detective. But Big Ger now wants him to track down a man long thought dead, and he’ll pay handsomely. Jack Oram had worked for Cafferty back in the day and absconded with a lot of his money. Everyone thought Big Ger had had him killed. But Cafferty knows better, and he insists he wants to make amends with the man. Rebus is far from sure of the gangster’s motives, but he finds in the assignment an opportunity to learn more about what else Big Ger might be up to.

Meanwhile, Rebus’s longtime sergeant, now Detective Inspector, Siobhan Clarke, has been forced to insert herself into a case about domestic violence. A serving police officer named Francis Haggard has beaten his long-suffering wife—again—and this time the force can’t overlook it. Haggard is a uniformed officer based at Tynecastle. “Every cop in Edinburgh knew at least one story from Tynecastle. Officers there had a reputation for overstepping the mark and getting away with it.” Haggard is one of “the Crew” there who have for many years been notorious for violence, kickbacks, and consorting with gangsters. The problem is, the Complaints have never been able to make any charge stick. Because the Crew put up what we in this country call a “blue wall.” Now, though, Officer Haggard threatens to blow the whistle on his colleagues to avoid prosecution for brutalizing his wife.

It will be no surprise to any Inspector Rebus fan that both these cases will become entangled, and Rebus and Siobhan will once again find themselves working together. Oh, and of course the Complaints will become mixed up in both.

About the author

Photo of Ian Rankin, author of this novel about police misbehavior
Sir Ian Rankin. Image: Hamish Brown – The Guardian

Sir Ian Rankin was born in 1960 in a small coal-mining town in Scotland. He received a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Edinburgh in 1982 but never finished a PhD in Scottish literature. He published his first novel in 1986. Rankin introduced Inspector Rebus the following year, and twenty-three other Rebus novels followed in the subsequent three decades. He’s one of Britain’s bestselling authors. And his work has won him an extraordinarily long list of honors, including a knighthood.

For more reading

This is one of the many Mysteries and thrillers set in Scotland that I’ve reviewed here.

To date, I’ve reviewed eight of the Rebus novels, beginning with the first: Knots and Crosses – Inspector Rebus #1 (The first in a series of great detective novels).

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