Those of you of a certain age and disposition will recognise that title not only as a John Martyn track but as the latest (and last?) Rebus book. Last night I clicked through a few old John Martyn tracks (I’ve got the CD somewhere but it’s probably in storage) and saw some ancient videos of the man in his prime. Martyn’s voice and style are unmistakable, like molten fudge served on hot coals, his lips barely enunciating the words as he sings from a throat constricted by emotion and perfectly adapted to his slithering, slapping guitar accompaniment. I love John Martyn even though I’ve never been an a-grade fan, never saw him live nor bought all the LP’s but still he can turn my soul to jelly in a couple of bars.
It’s quite fitting that he should feature in so many of the Rebus books since in many ways he and the detective are alike. In his youth Martyn was utterly beautiful with slim, delicate features and dark curly hair – but alas, in middle age (he barely hit old-age, dying at 60) he became a grotesque parody of his former self; bloated and bandy with one leg amputated below the knee, most of his problems brought on by drink and drugs.
Enter Rebus in this his umpteenth print incarnation, named after the above John Martyn track, ‘Rather be the Devil.’
Unfortunately for Ian Rankin, having begun what turned out to be a lengthy sequence of novels with John Rebus already in his forties, he has now had to retire him, and it’s getting harder and harder for both the detective and his author to squeeze him into the action. Besides, Rebus is – or might be – dying; a shadow on the lung he christens Marvin (think about it*) threatens his very existence and, miracle of miracles, he has given up the fags. He has a girlfriend now and through her gets involved in a cold case; this, however, does not prove the main thrust of the action. The cold case proves to be linked to other cases involving gangsters including none other than our old friend Cafferty. Through a mixture of guile, deceit and purloined business cards, Rebus wangles himself into the investigation, to the increasing frustration of former sidekick Siobhan Clarke and former adversary Malcolm Fox. These two clearly constitute the future, but what’s Rankin in Edinburgh without Rebus? And there’s the rub.
The storyline is as good as any of the others, but for me what was missing here was some level of emotional engagement. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the book, but I’d have liked to know a little more about Rebus’s inner life: I’d have liked some conflict with his girlfriend rather than having her simply bookend the story: I’d have liked some more suspense about whether he was going to live or die. In the end he’s just let off the hook and it’s a bit of an anticlimax.
So all in all, worth reading but not the best Rebus ever.
*Hank Marvin – got it now?
3 thoughts on “Rather Be The Devil”
I love John Martyn’s music – all of it, I mean – but I believe he was an incredibly difficult man and a wife-beater to boot. I saw him in concert two years before he died – he was confined to a wheelchair throughout but his voice was as good (if deeper) as ever.
Yes, I heard about the domestic violence. never saw him live, sadly but good to know he sounded great up until the end
And ‘I’d Rather Be The Devil’ is NOT a John Martyn composition: it’s a blues song from 1931 by Skp James (who also wrote Rollin’ & Tumblin’ as covered by Cream and diverse others). John Martyn and Danny Thompson turn it inside out and make it their own but J.M. was proper enough to credit the song to tis original composer, proving he could be a decent cove at times.