@@@@ (4 out of 5)
In Ian Rankin’s Strip Jack, the fourth novel in his long-running murder mystery series, the newly promoted Edinburgh police Inspector John Rebus is decidedly unenthusiastic about the latest assignment from his sanctimonious boss, Chief Superintendent “Farmer” Watson. Rebus is ordered to join a large task force assembled for a midnight raid on a high-end brothel, where he dreads the idea of unmasking members of the city’s elite. However, once the police have stormed the house, he is surprised to find Gregor Jack MP sitting on a bed with an unclothed young woman. Jack has a reputation as both a man of integrity and a diligent representative of his constituency’s interests in London. “Most MPs, Rebus wouldn’t have given the time of day. But Gregor Jack was . . . well, he was Gregor Jack . . . ‘Mild’ was an adjective often used about Jack. So were ‘honest,’ ‘legal’ and ‘decent.'” Though fully clothed himself in the brothel, Jack’s carefully cultivated image is in tatters after he is marched in front of the cameras on his way to the police van that will take him into the station for questioning.
For Rebus, there are three questions to be answered: who informed the Chief Superintendent about the existence of the brothel, why was the MP found there, and who tipped off the press? These three questions turn out to be the key to unraveling a complex mystery surrounding two presumably linked murders that bedevil the police and entertain the press for weeks on end. Another, much less urgent case—the theft of several rare first editions from the home of a divinity professor at the University of Edinburgh—also proves to be crucial to identifying the murderer.
In the course of the investigation, Rebus and his colleagues are forced to navigate through the byzantine relationships among the friends surrounding Jack and his wife, Elizabeth, who is one of the murder victims. Rebus is convinced that one of these family friends is Elizabeth’s murderer, but a homeless and seemingly deranged man has confessed to both murders—and then fled. The Chief Superintendent and the Chief Inspector who is Rebus’ immediate superior are focused on tracking down the man and imprisoning him for both crimes. They’re under pressure from the police, and from Elizabeth’s influential father, to close the case quickly. Rebus is convinced that the man’s confession is full of holes. But he must work around his bosses to follow his instinct on a parallel investigation.
Strip Jack was published in 1992 and reflects police procedures and the technology available at that time. For example, a telephone booth figures in the mystery in a major way.
In the John Rebus mysteries, Ian Rankin makes generous use of words known only to Scots. For instance, “Both men had zippered their jackets against the snell wind and the occasional smirr.” Because Rankin is himself Scottish and has lived in Edinburgh for most of his life, I don’t hold this against him. Certainly, it’s easier to excuse than the pretentious practice of some English-language writers to sprinkle words and phrases in French or Italian throughout their books.
The title of this novel comes from a card game called “Strip Jack Naked” that is also sometimes known (in Scotland, presumably) as “Beggar Thy Neighbour.”