The Complaints is the second novel by Ian Rankin after his final (?) Rebus book, and is an order of magnitude better than the first post-Rebus exercise, Doors Open. The Complaints is a far more substantial and engaging novel, introducing a new character, DCI Malcolm Fox, and a new Edinburgh police department, “The Complaints”, formally the Complaints and Conduct department. Fox and his small team investigate other policemen who might have strayed from the straight and narrow. Hence they aren’t liked, and form a tight little group – not, as it turns out, without its own tensions. A subdivision of The Complaints is “The Chop Shop”, whose official name is the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) department. The Chop Shop operates in a darkened room down the corridor, in which two officers (never one) look at child porn on the internet or on captured computers for strictly limited times, and try to break the paedophile rings responsible – a constant game of catch-up with technology and sophisticated avoidance tactics by the perpetrators.
That’s the background for this multilayered novel, where anyone could be investigating anyone. In the opening pages, Fox and his team are putting together the final details of a case they’ve recently closed, in which they’ve caught a popular and experienced policeman, Glen Heaton, who for years (we are told) has been on the take and trading favours among a network of criminals. As Fox divides up the paperwork between his team, he is called into the Chop Shop and asked to investigate a young policeman, Jamie Breck, who has used his credit card to register at a child porn site run out of Australia, and who is in the same police division as the disgraced Heaton.
Fox also has a crisis in his personal life. His sister Jude, always struggling to make ends meet, is regularly abused by her partner Vince, an occasional brickie. She’s now got a broken arm, and Fox is torn – he wants to help and be close to his sister and to his father, Mitch, who is now in a care home paid for by Fox. At the same time, he is furious at Vince and wants to protect Jude without alienating her by interfering in their relationship. He does not have much time to ponder on his dilemma, however, because a dead body is found near a canal – which turns out to be Vince. Before he can draw breath, Fox’s own actions begin to look suspicious, not least because the lead detective investigating Vince’s murder is Heaton’s boss and desperate to reinstate his colleague at Fox’s expense. Before he knows it, Fox is suspended – together with the man he is supposed to be investigating for internet porn, Jamie Breck. The two form one of those uneasy partnerships beloved of crime fiction, to find out what is really going on and to repair their lost reputations.
Ian Rankin delivers a twisty, solid plot in The Complaints, but the book is much more than that. Everything has a paranoid veneer to it, as the people Fox encounters aren’t sure if he is investigating them or knows more about them than he’s telling, and Fox himself can’t work out who to trust as more and more awkward facts come to light, and as he begins to wonder why he is in the trouble he’s in. Perhaps predictably, Fox decides to undergo his own unofficial investigation into Vince’s death, which not only brings him into direct conflict with police officialdom, but also leads him to suspect that everything is tied up into one big picture, including his own fate.
As well as the clever plotting, Fox is preoccupied about his family relationships – he constantly worries that in putting his father in a home he has let him down; and he struggles to maintain closeness with his sister rather than judging her, and to keep the little family together. His own brief marriage failed some years before, again causing him to reflect on his own needs and priorities. Fox lives alone and seems pretty bored, constantly fighting the temptation to drink (he’s an ex-alcoholic who gave up the booze some years before the book opens) and finding nothing to do with his off-duty hours except watch old TV shows and meet his colleagues at the pub (having to drink an endless stream of apple and tomato juices). Fox is, in fact, very like Rebus with a few details changed, but there is plenty of scope for his character to develop into more than an "alternative Rebus". I wouldn’t be at all surprised, in fact, if Rebus doesn’t pop up in a future “Complaints” book, as he certainly inhabits the same fictional landscape as Fox.
Seasoned crime-fiction readers will spot a few signals to deeper mysteries near the start of the book, and will be wondering if they are going to be picked up in the later stages (they are). I really liked the swirling, concentric circles of the events that Fox gradually comes to realise exist – and I enjoyed his dilemma in working out how to attack the various problems assailing him given all the walls of mistrust between various departments and personalities, and his natural desire not to incriminate himself or knowing how far to trust Jamie Breck, the suspected paedophile but apparently nice guy – or anyone, including his colleagues in the Complaints team, his own boss and even the two staff of the Chop Shop who fingered Jamie.
I hope to encounter Fox again – perhaps next time he’ll be conducting a “standard” Complaints investigation instead of being involved himself. Yet it is the depiction of the personal experience of what it is like to be investigated, as well as the processes of the investigations themselves, that make the novel an effective introduction to this new series.