We have a theory in our house about British television dramas: there are about 25 actors total in Great Britain, and they are all in all the shows that we like. Look: there's Sam from Foyle's War in Death in Paradise! Roz from MI5 in Crimson Field! Who isn't in Wolf Hall - Soames Forsyte, Jenny Lee, Mycroft, Lady Persie from the Upstairs/Downstairs reboot, to name a few. And don't get me started on the unpleasant but apparently bulletproof Spratt from the Dowager's household on Downton Abbey - we see him all over the place, in Crimson Field, Foyle's War, and Inspector George Gently.
A related phenomenon is that I am starting to see fictional detectives in TV terms; namely, Malcolm Fox, in my mind's eye, IS George Gently. Doesn't matter that Fox is in Edinburgh and Gently in Durham, or that Gently is obviously older than Fox but takes place about 40 years earlier. There is something in the older, tolerant UK-ish detective with younger impetuous sidekicks that just says white-haired, wise George Gently.
There is a bit of irony in this. The plot line in Ian Rankin's second Complaints novel, The Impossible Dead, actually turns on the topic of Scottish nationalism, especially its less-stable 1980s incarnation. This story, set sometime in the now, before the independence referendum of 2014 but firmly in the time of the Scottish National Party's political ascendancy, involves events and characters from the movement's more radical recent past. The characters are fictional, but not the organizations, and Rankin effectively links them to the the weird old days of the paranoid 1980s: the bitter end of the Cold War, nuclear arms development, and terrorism in and out of the U.K. (frightening in its day but somehow more comprehensible than the religiously extremist and sophisticatedly global version we live with now). The younger cops don't really know from this time, but Foxy remembers. It may be this nostalgia* that makes me link Fox and Gently - both characters operate with an undertone of melancholy that makes them more interesting than your standard single male investigator of a certain age.
Gently's melancholy is firmly rooted in his wife's murder, which, with his being a cop, feeds that whole series. In Fox's case, the melancholy is less around his work or longing for the bad old days, and more about his elderly father's decline and his difficult relationship with his impossibly selfish sister. This thread doesn't appear at first to fit in this box-within-a-box story of misbehaving cops, dead cops, and old, unresolved (not unsolved, just, perhaps not correctly solved) deaths. But I think it is really about coming to terms with your past self, whether that is your political identity, your profession, your additions, or maybe even just your role in your family.
Still, there is a plot, and it feels somehow a disservice to lump Fox and his Scottish compatriots with a Brit. In The Impossible, Fox and his colleagues Kaye and Naysmith, the despised Complaints, must review some alleged suspicious testimony on the part of cops in another town. In the course of that work, a retired cop - the one who blew the lid on the misbehavior that the others may be covering up - is found dead, and he, as it happens, turns out to have been investigating a possible cover-up of a death decades earlier, of a political firebrand. Confused yet? Yeah, that's how this goes. Just when you think you've got a handle on it, someone else who may or may not be covering up some less savoury part of his or her past appears. And then Fox keeps getting pulled back home to deal with his father's failing health and his sister's irrational behavior around that. While I found the piecing together of the modern radical part of Scottish politics quite interesting, it is never really clear why Fox keeps pursuing the investigation. Having overstepped at one point in the initial internal investigation, he was warned off pretty early, but keeps poking around, incurring the wrath or more and more senior police and government officials. The eventual resolution is connected to his own history only tangentially, and ultimately feels a bit forced.
That said, Fox is a sympathetic character, and the story is well-written. And when I thought about it, the whole coming-to-terms-with-your-past theme makes some sense. I'm not likely to seek out another Complaints but I still like them better than grumpy Rebus. And if you like the Scots, you'll enjoy this one.
* Nostalgia is not the right word, for that evokes something you like remembering, and you don't really want to think more than you have to about letter bombs and nationalist terrorism.