Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Copper in Crisis: A Review of Ian Rankin's The Complaints

Title: The Complaints
Author: Ian Rankin
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Regan Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Company (2009)
Pages: 438
How I Came by This Book: Purchased at Borders after hearing about it on NPR.

Synopsis: Every police officer gets used to distrust and fear among some members of the public. It goes with the job, and it's more than worth it when a criminal gets put behind bars.

But there's little reward for a detective with the Complaints, whose sole occupation is to investigate accusations against fellow police officers. It takes a special kind of cop to withstand the stonewalling and low-grade contempt that comes his way when he takes on a new case. It takes a very special kind of cop to even enjoy it. 

Malcolm Fox is that kind of cop. 

But everything he's known and loved about his job is soon to come into question when he's asked to learn more about a promising young police officer whose computer shows disturbing links to a child-abuse ring. For one thing, Malcolm breaks one of the cardinal rules of any investigation: he starts to like the guy. For another, his suspect is the lead detective on a case that hits very close to home--a death that may involve Malcolm's troubled sister.

As paths cross and lines blur, Malcolm soon finds himself in as much trouble as anyone he's investigated--and when there's no one on the force who's got your back, that's a dangerous place to be. 

Review: When I first heard about this book, I knew that I had to read it. I'm not usually a fan of crime novels but I love Scotland and I like books about people fighting against impossible odds, which is what this sounded like. And it was, really. But sometimes it felt like things were just too...convenient. 

Ian Rankin

First things first: Ian Rankin's novel, The Complaints, is about Malcolm Fox a cop working in Edinburgh for the Complaints, which is exactly like Internal Affairs for us Yanks. He investigates dirty cops and he does it without the help of the rest of the force because, let's face it, who the heck wants to help sell out a fellow officer? So, Malcolm has very few friends. He also has a difficult family life, with a sister who covers up that her boyfriend beats her and a father who is in a nursing home that Malcolm tries to go see as often as possible. Around the same time that he gets asked by CEOP (Child Exploitation and Protection Centre) to begin investigating an officer named Jamie Breck, who is suspected of being involved in a child pornography ring, his sister's loser boyfriend ends up dead. And Jamie Breck is the lead investigator. 

Not being able to stay out of the investigation, Malcolm begins to work with and even like Breck. Breck, in turn, begins to trust Malcolm, not knowing that he's trying to pin some pretty nasty things on him. The two develop a sort of friendship...and are busted for improper behavior. As a suspect in each other's cases, they aren't really supposed to have contact with one another. Now on suspension, Malcolm and Breck begin their own investigation: who's setting them up? Breck honestly has nothing to do with the child porn ring and Malcolm realizes that he himself was under investigation for improper behavior before his sister's boyfriend's death. 

You with me so far? Yeah, it's a little confusing, although Rankin does a good job of keeping everything under control. In fact, there is not one unresolved plot thread in this entire novel. No holes, just resolution. It's one of the things that I liked about this book. In addition to this are the characters--Malcolm Fox is a thoroughly enjoyable, well-crafted character and Jamie Breck is funny and charming. I found the constant references to Jamie's love of online gaming to be a little obnoxious. I mean, the guy's a cop and he's got a girlfriend. When is he going to have time to play Quidnunc, a made-up online game? He also doesn't really seem the type. Other than that, however, I really loved these two guys. 

Hamish MacBeth has ruined me
for Scottish cops. I couldn't help
but picture Malcolm looking like
Robert Carlyle.

So, plot? Check. Characters? Check. Writing? Sort of check. Rankin is, most of the time, a really great writer. He's good at mixing description and dialogue and a lot of the characters have their own unique voice. But Rankin tends to get too detailed. His dialogue scenes go on for pages and pages--someone needs to learn how to show, not tell--and he gets a little carried away describing Malcolm's home life. I don't care what he ate for breakfast, I don't care what he did before going to sleep. If it's not important to the story--like Malcolm's persistent cold that didn't really mean anything to the plot or the fact that he kept trying to rearrange his bookshelves--why keep it in there? I mean, they weren't even red herrings. It was just a bunch of boring, extraneous information. I also found that Rankin was trying too hard to include social media into his novel. A text message here and there is fine but Facebook, Twitter, and online gaming get mentions as well and they seem only to be there to show that Rankin knows what they are. 

There were so many coincidences, too. Johanna Broughton just happens to be walking down the street? Someone just happens to hear something at just the right time? Even the ending seemed sort of convenient. I enjoyed watching Malcolm and Jamie try to get their lives back but I would have appreciated it if things had been a little more difficult for them. 

One thing that Rankin did that I appreciated is that he tied his plot to the current financial crisis. It's nice to have authors who utilize current events in such a skillful way. He took the kernel of Scotland's financial difficulties and built a plot around it, one with twists and turns and memorable characters. 

Rankin's best-known character, Inspector Rebus, has been retired (for now), so it looks like Malcolm Fox is his new focus. He has a new Fox novel coming out sometime and I'm looking forward to it, despite my complaints about The Complaints. It was a pretty decent book and I like Malcolm enough to continue reading about him. I'm hoping that Jamie Breck will continue to be involved as well because I like the rapport and the relationship that the two developed throughout the book. I'm just hoping to have more action, more great characters, and more twisty-turny plots and less convenient plot devices, less "and then he ate some cereal," and less of Malcolm's whiny sister (who I'm not even going to get started on). 

Favorite Quote: 
A lot of cops asked the Complaints the same question: How can you do it? How can you spit on your own kind? These were officers you'd worked with, or might work with in the future. These were, it was often said, "the good guys." But that was the problem right there--what did it mean to be "good"? (p. 5)
I'm giving The Complaints four out of five Gabriels. It was a good book but it could have used some improvement. Rankin is obviously a gifted writer but that doesn't mean that he can't make mistakes. 



  1. Nice review! My mum is a mad crime reader and goes through phases where all she buys is one particular author's work, Rankin was one of these. I've only ever read his Rebus novels but I think I'd like to give his new protagonist a shot. At the very least this will make a convenient present to my mum that I can later steal and read for myself!

  2. Nice! I love presents like that.

    I had never read any of his books before but the idea of this one intrigued me so much that I had to pick it up. I'm tempted to look into his Rebus novels but it probably won't be until next year because I've already got so much reading to do.

    I'd definitely give him a shot. The book isn't 100% incredible but the characters are pretty decent. I think that once Rankin settles into this new world that the books will only get better in quality. This being the first book of a new character, there are bound to be some kinks.

    If you read it, let me know what you think.