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Doors Open - Ian Rankin
Before I talk about the book ‘Doors Open’ written by Ian Rankin let me tell you a little story of my own.
Many years ago I was the chief cashier in a branch of a high street bank. It was a small branch with a low foot flow of customers. However, it was in the very wealthy Belgravia area of London so what customers we did have were of the well heeled variety, premiership footballers and senior politicians were regulars. Even if they weren’t famous many of our customers were titled and came from famous families. These customers requested a lot of cash over the counter so we would hold rather more in our safe than similar sized branches elsewhere. Most weeks this would be around two to three hundred thousand pounds, at busy times it could reach perhaps three quarters of a million pounds.
The money was held in a safe, the safe was in a vault secured by a barred gate during the day and a thick steel door over night. Once sealed, the alarm would be set; the alarm was monitored but not time-locked and each member of staff had their own code. Each stage required two key holders (red and blue for differentiation) who would have the keys and combinations for one half of each lock. Half the branch staff would be red key holders and the other would be blue. I was a red key holder.
My colleague, a blue key holder, and I would regularly go for a post work drink and do you know what we often discussed? Robbing the bank, obviously. Or, more exactly; robbing the bank and getting away with it.
You see that’s the tricky bit. With a bit of careful planning I could probably have shepherded the cash balance up to one and half million, perhaps even two, on a one off occasion without drawing too much attention. Being joint key holders we could have emptied the safe on a Friday and no one would be any wiser until Monday morning by which time we would have been in Brazil. You see, getting the money - actually committing the crime would have been a piece of cake.
Unfortunately, having used our own codes everyone would have known it was us who had done it so the ‘getting away with it’ part would have been a bit tricky. The point is; two nice middle class boys like us just weren’t set up to be master criminals. I mean, just how do you go about getting fake passports and so on. It was a nice idea to get our hands on a million or so but the idea of spending the rest of our lives on the run was less appealing. Despite some very serious thinking and some very serious drinking there was no obvious way round this and the plans were filed in their rightful place. Under ‘S’ for Stupid Ideas.
Which leads me nicely onto the book where three nice middle class boys discuss, over drinks obviously, how nice it would be to steal priceless paintings. This is perfectly natural given the three men in question. There is Professor Robert Gissing, head of the Art department at the University. There is Allan Cruikshank, high flying banker with an appreciation (if not the budget) for fine art and finally there is Mike MacKenzie, a software entrepreneur who having recently sold his company for millions, has found a worthy outlet for his new found wealth in collecting expensive paintings.
They meet informally but regularly at exhibitions and auctions across the city, each time expressing their frustration at the exclusionary cost of classic art (Cruikshank), frustration that the best pieces are hidden from public view in warehouses and corporate collections (Gissing) and frustration that the pieces that they would want to own will never come onto the market anyway (MacKenzie). They idly discuss the inequities of this and joke about how they could remedy the situation. They talk of stealing paintings but it is all in jest, these are nice middle class boys after all and cold blooded thievery such as this is not really very likely.
However, one evening Gissing proposes a plan that is both plausible and achievable. Under cover of the Open Door day (the day when many private buildings open up to the public) they can go into the National Gallery Warehouse, swap masterpieces for fakes and leave no one the wiser. A perfect, victimless, white collar crime it would seem. Hmm, we’ll see about that.
Doors Open is the first novel written by Ian Rankin since he pensioned off his most famous character, John Rebus. Retiring a character as popular (and lucrative) as Rebus was a brave choice for the writer and he would have known that his next few publications would be crucial. Rankin has built a large following (I know, I’m one of them) with the Rebus series, a ready market for his next book but the question is; are we Rankin fans or Rebus fans? Most Rebus loyalists will buy this book but if the author doesn’t deliver many will drift away.
I fear that with this book Rankin does indeed risk losing a significant number of his readership. It just doesn’t have the quality of his earlier work, and it doesn’t move far enough away from the Rebus books to hide this. The infamous detective may have gone away but this is still a crime story set in Edinburgh, and includes a tenacious detective willing to go against his superiors to investigate a crime. The Rebus stories were built on a collection of very strong and well defined characters. Rebus himself, obviously, but with support (dramatically at least) from Detective Sergeant Clarke and the gangster Cafferty each episode was driven and defined primarily by character. In Doors Open all the characters have a vagueness about them, a lack of definition and the reader doesn’t really get close to any of them and therefore any emotional engagement is missing.
The story is a lot lighter in tone than the Rebus series, even when some unpleasant gangsters become involved in the boy’s plans things don’t feel particularly serious. Unfortunately this lightness is less to do with any humour, Rankin doesn’t really do ‘funny’, and more to do with the story and plot being very lightweight. It was an ongoing frustration with the story that throughout there was a lack of believability and logic in both the plot and the characters. Three regular guys talking about stealing millions of pounds worth of art I can live with. The three guys coming up with a feasible plan for committing the crime, and having access to the necessary forging skills, I can also believe - like I said in the completely true introduction there are occasions when the commission of a crime is not that difficult. While it remains a plan and a crime that is unlikely to be noticed, or discovered for many years, it all makes sense but once the theft escalates to a full on armed heist with intimidation of security guards and deception of officials and police its credibility begins to creak.
It just does not make sense that these characters would act in the way that they do. None of them are under personal pressure, or driven by desperation. They could all have backed out at any point and there is no satisfying explanation for them committing a crime of this nature. Once this central plank has been undermined there is little left to raise the book above the ordinary. No humour, no suspense, even the old Rankin standby of Edinburgh itself is unutilised and all that is left is deeply unsatisfying.
For a writer as talented as Rankin this is a curious state of affairs. Doors Open feels very much like a book written early in a writer’s career but left unpublished, brought to light only once a reputation has been created. To see that it is a new book and, further, the one chosen to launch his post-Rebus career is perplexing. If this was the only Rankin book I’d read I’m not sure I would have read another. Maybe I was just a Rebus fan after all, what a shame.