Set in Darkness begins at Queensbury House, part of the complex of buildings that will soon house the new Scottish parliament. All around new structures are being put up, but Queensbury House is part of the old that is being kept and refurbished. In the process of fixing things up a body is discovered behind a blocked-up fireplace. It won't be the only time that the past inconveniently resurfaces.
Just two decades earlier Edinburgh had been on the verge of a similar boom, but the vote on Scottish devolution went the wrong way and the bit of independence -- and the possibility of making a lot of money with land speculation and construction work -- didn't come to pass. Despite a more successful turn of events with the coming of the turn of the century that recent past also haunts the present.
Soon enough there are three bodies: the unidentified one in the fireplace, Roddy Grieve, who was standing for the new parliament, and a homeless man who apparently committed suicide -- and turns out to have some £400,000 in the bank.
These deaths don't look to have too much to do with one another, but there seem to be some connexions -- and certainly enough mystery. And Detective Inspector John Rebus looks into all three of them. Paired with the arse-crawling up-and-comer DI Derek Linford, Rebus -- anything but a boss' favourite -- has some trouble getting things done his way, but eventually he manages.
Rough around the edges, generally drinking too much, worried about his daughter Sammy (undergoing rehabilitation down south, after an accident that put her in a wheelchair) but not paying enough attention to her, Rebus is only in his element when he's chasing down the bad guys. On top of it all, it's the Christmas season too, and with everything conspiring against him he has a hard time of it. Compounding it all then is the release from prison of Big Ger Cafferty, a longtime nemesis he thought he'd put away pretty much for good. But Cafferty has an X-ray showing he has cancer and only a short time to live (not that Rebus would fall for that excuse), so they released him.
The investigations unfold nicely: Rankin does the day-to-day detective work well. From the tiring work of sifting for clues to the complicated office politics these are the best parts of the book (and make up a good piece of it). Rebus jousts with Linford -- who's almost too good to be true, except that it turns out he doesn't take rejection from the ladies too well, which causes problems when the lady is a colleague.
Aside from the criminal elements that look like they could be involved in all this (including some who have become semi-respectable) there's also the Grieve family: powerful, well-known, and made up of quite a collection of characters. And there's one son who happens to have been missing since 1979 .....
There's also a secondary narrative thread, following the antics of a pair of mismatched, disgruntled childhood friends who've taken to assaulting women. There's some connexion with the rest of the story, but -- although Rankin does some fine writing here -- it never fully pans out and feels almost like an aborted second novel, tacked onto this one because it couldn't support one of its own.
As far as the central story, the deaths Rebus is exploring, the build-up is fairly well done, and enjoyable going. It's only when things get tied up that it gets a bit messy and awkward. Not that Rankin doesn't offer a good explanation for what happened: it's the presentation that slips. Linford is conveniently shoved aside -- unfortunate, regardless of how unsympathetic he is -- and the final dynamics between police, suspects, criminals, and others generally don't feel as natural any longer. The lowpoint comes near the end, when someone notes: "Sending someone like Rebus to interview a sick man is tantamount to unlawful killing."
The ending, with someone Rebus probably doesn't want to see in that position: "back, and in charge of his Edinburgh" offers some promise for the future, but again Rankin doesn't bring it about in the most convincing way. It's a good idea, but the execution disappoints a bit.
Crowded with characters, Rankin can't pay enough attention to all of them (Linford, in particular, is unceremoniously ignored by book's end), but when he chooses to he can work very nicely with what he's got. Rebus' personal life doesn't interfere too much with goings-on: the drunken binges are kept to a minimum, the one woman in his life -- daughter Sammy -- is out of sight and largely out of mind, and he only sleeps with one wrong woman; his most interesting relationship is with colleague Siobhan Clarke. It's the personal weaknesses of others -- including Linford -- that play as large a role in how things unfold.
There's the usual good Edinburgh stuff: the city remains a major player in the book, and Rankin covers it well, from the seedy fringes to the fast-changing new-rich parts. And there are a lot of musical references, a largely lost pop culture that dates Rebus (though he's open to the new -- if it's good) -- and lets him (and Rankin) show off a bit.
Overall Set in Darkness is a solid, big read, with only a few let-downs -- though these are more noticeable because Rankin sets the bar fairly high.