When Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in a duel to the death with Moriarty at the Reichenbach falls readers demanded his return. They eventually got their way and Watson was forced to reveal that Sherlock didn’t die after all. Perhaps not quite accompanied by the same level of public dissent, the retirement of rebus nonetheless dismayed Rankin readers – fortunately leaving the police did not prove to be the end of the Rebus casebooks. Significantly, this is more than crowd pleasing, there’s a logic to Rebus’s character that makes it hard to believe that he wouldn’t go on anyway. After all, what else would he do? Rebus was never a man destined for the pipe and slippers and comfy armchair, not even with his extensive LP collection to keep him company. So Rankin let Rebus soldier on and he’s back again in A Song for the Dark Times after a two year absence. He’s not exactly fighting fit, was he ever? Time and lifestyle have certainly taken a toll but the good news is that he’s where he should be – snooping around murder.

As the novel opens, DI Siobhan Clarke has taken a few days off work to help Rebus move house as his well worn ticker is no longer up to the stairs of his current flat. Climbing is less gentle exercise and more Russian roulette these days. Still the detective in him never ducks a challenge and this one is very personal for Rebus. His daughter Samantha’s partner has gone missing and it’s never too late to be a good father so the detective is determined to be supportive. He leaves his dog, Brillo, in Siobhan’s capable hands and drives all the way to Tongue in the north Highlands. His ‘rust bucket’ Saab just about makes it before conking out. Meanwhile, Siobhan arrives back at the station in the middle of a big case, a rich Saudi student was murdered in a city car park. Big money and politics are involved so the higher ups are watching closely and Major Crime have sent DI Malcolm Fox along to help DCI Sutherland’s team, (there’s some suspicion he might be spying on them).

In Tongue, Samantha has a confession to make, she was having an affair. Keith, her husband, knew about it, she says they were dealing with it but it doesn’t look good. Keith was spending more and more time away from the family home, indulging his fascination in local history and a WWII POW camp up the road. DS Creasey investigating Keith’s disappearance has driven up from Inverness to have a word with Samantha, he arrives at the same time as Rebus, (there’s no local station). Creasey’s questions are pretty routine, after all, most people who disappear eventually turn up. Creasey feels the need to mark Rebus’s card about butting out to the inquiry but despite protestations of only being here to support his daughter Rebus opens his own investigation. Starting with the locals, Rebus gets a sense of their impressions of Samantha and Keith’s relationship. Jess, the man she had an affair with, runs a local commune, clearly Samantha likes the people there but there’s some local animosity. Naturally, it’s Rebus who finds Keith’s body and a disappearance becomes murder. Creasey sends uniforms to cordon the site until a full team get there, they are under instructions to keep Rebus away.

‘You’re only doing your job, son. Fact they’ve stuck you out here tells me all I need to know about the esteem you’re held in by your fellow officers.’ Rebus turned to head back to his Saab. ‘Make sure Creasey knows I need a word.’

Can he be a supportive father and a detective at the same time? He never managed it in the past. Back in the city, Siobhan and Malcolm Fox are trying to connect the dots between the wealthy friends of the dead student and a motive for his slaying. It leads them to Big Ger, Cafferty’s clubs may have had a gentrifying facelift but he’s the same old scheming gangster. He has information for them but how much can his lead be relied upon?

Rebus works the edges of the official enquiry into Keith’s death and some disturbing links between that case and the murder of student Salman bin Mahmoud in Edinburgh begin to emerge. Rebus is his usual prickly nuisance self and the murder mystery is satisfying and credible. Rankin takes us on a lovely tour of the Highlands; it’s scenery and it’s past, if it weren’t for murder it would be a pleasant road trip. A Song for the Dark Times is an enjoyable not-quite-police-procedural murder mystery. Rankin’s tight time frame helps to keep the action on the move. This is the perfect Christmas present for the tartan noir crime fan in the family.

Review by Paul Burke
Personal read 4*
Group read 4*

Orion, hardback, ISBN 9781409176978, out now