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The Hanging Garden by Ian Rankin

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Mystery and History

Ian Rankin is a very successful mystery writer. His first book featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus was written when Rankin was 25 years old. Now at the age of 49 Rankin has sold more than 15 million copies of the seventeen Rebus novels, he has won every big international crime writing award there is, and his novels have been adapted to a television series.

Rankin now lives in the same affluent Edinburgh neighborhood as Joanne K Rowling, another even more successful writer. Success does not seem to have spoiled Rankin who grew up in a working class family in the mining town of Fife.

After living on a remote French farm, where his two sons were born, the family returned to Scotland in 1996 when Ian Rankin’s books became successful enough for him to make a living exclusively from his writing. As the father of a disabled child, Rankin donates a large part of his income to charity, to help less fortunate families of disabled children. He seems like a thoroughly nice guy – and so does his creation, John Rebus.

Rebus, though, has a less successful home life than Ian Rankin. As I began to read the novel The Hanging Garden I found Rebus trying to improve his life – stop his drinking, reduce his weight and get in shape physically. He’s been separated from his wife for a good long time, another important relationship has ended because of his drinking and lack of consideration, and his daughter is estranged from him.

In the introduction to this novel Rankin writes, “I knew that the crime novel could say as much about human nature and the state of the world as any other branch of writerly endeavor.” And it is human nature that is at the heart of this novel. There is a town, Oradour, in the Dordogne close to where Rankin lived for several years that was the site of a massacre during the Second World War – and it has been left as it was the day that everyone in the town was murdered by the Nazis. Rankin continues, “ Having decided months before that I wanted to write about Oradour… how could I do so from the point of view of Detective Inspector John Rebus? The answer..I would have Rebus investigate an alleged Nazi war criminal who has been living quietly in Edinburgh for forty years or more.” In his research Rankin found there was in fact an alleged war criminal, a real one, living in Edinburgh. The book that resulted, The Hanging Garden, went on to win the French award the Cognac Prix du Roman Policier – and was the third biggest selling novel in 1999 after two of the Harry Potter books.

The novel opens on Guy Fawkes night as Rebus meets his daughter for a meal. We then become involved in the case of the alleged war criminal and learn about the crimes he may have committed. As Rebus investigates he researches the past and wonders about how it could have happened. Another investigator who specializes in war crimes comments “Atrocities, Inspector, occur by an effort of the collective will. Because sometimes all it takes to turn us into devils is the fear of being an outsider.” We learn about the Rat Line, an arrangement for getting Nazi was criminals to safety, with the assistance of the Allies to protect their own secrets.

There is another case also demanding attention, the increasing violence in the mob warfare between rival gangs of Eastern European origin. When Rebus’ daughter is injured by a hit and run driver, Rebus fears that it is his work that has put her life in danger. He thinks, “When you thought about life, you thought of it as chunks of time, but really all it was was a series of connected moments, any one of which could change you completely.” Rebus must now communicate with his wife, his lover, and his fellow policemen in order to care for his daughter. As he never has before, he must put his family first.

It’s a mystery novel, so that’s all you get. I have slowly been reading my way through this series over many years. This one saw me through a long day of travelling, it’s one of his best. Thanks, Ian Rankin.

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