This new story from Ian Rankin is published as part of the ‘Quick Reads’ initiative, a World Book Day initiative, which aims to encourage reading amongst, as the blurb says, “avid readers and by people who never had or who have lost the reading habit.” You can’t help feeling that they are really aimed at the last two categories, as these are fast-paced novella-length works that can easily be absorbed in a single sitting or two (think of the commuter who may read most of this on the journey to and from work and then finish it off in the evening over a glass of something). However, as an avid reader myself, I still enjoy the feeling of reading a book in a single day without having devoted most of the day to the task. I think this is a fantastic initiative and ay £1.99 a volume, a real bargain in these days of fiscal belt-tightening.
A Cool Head is good Rankin fare – no Rebus, I’m afraid, but a possibly interesting DI Jane Harris, who plays a relatively peripheral role in the story, but is nonetheless the central detective and the one to whom we are drawn. If anything, the story is focussed around Gravy, the young gravedigger, rather than the detectives or the villains, and parts of the story are written in Gravy’s first-person voice. The territory is familiar enough – the underbelly of Glasgow and Edinburgh’s Gangsterland – and the story focusses on a botched robbery and the events that follow from it and the inevitable search for the missing money. It is a story with a mystery at its centre, a mystery that everyone in the story is trying to solve and success will go to whoever solves it first. It is a well-plotted tale and Rankin, as usual, writes crisp and believable dialogue. Of course, being the length it is (just over 100 pages) the story does not have the complexity of twists, turns, dead-ends, sub-plots and social context that would normally be associated with Rankin. Instead it tells a straight, undeviating story, the complexity of plotting lying within the joining up of the actions of the characters within it. But although some may find this less satisfying than the novel form, where much more is possible, the criticism would be unfair – with a book this length you should know what you’re getting and there’s no boubt that Rankin does it well.