Ian Rankin

A Question of Blood

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A Question of Blood Summary

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The 14th in Scottish author Ian Rankin’s “Inspector Rebus” series of crime thriller novels, A Question of Blood (2003) follows maverick Edinburgh detective John Rebus as he is called in to investigate what appears to be a school shooting. Although under investigation for murder himself, Rebus unravels a plot involving British Special Forces, Irish paramilitaries, and a drug-smuggling operation. The novel was well-received, although some reviewers felt it to be “a notch below quintessential Rankin” (Kirkus Reviews).

The novel opens in the aftermath of an apparently motiveless shooting at an elite private school in South Queensferry, some ten miles outside Edinburgh. Two students are dead, a third has been injured, and the gunman, Lee Herdman, is dead, apparently by his own hand. The facts of the case appear straightforward: the only questions that remain are the gunman’s motive and where he got the weapon. The local investigator, Bobby Hogan, learns that Lee Herdman had been in the Special Air Service (SAS), an elite special forces unit, so he asks for the assistance of D.I. John Rebus, a former Army man.

However, Rebus is about to be suspended from all duties, pending an investigation. He is suspected of murdering an Edinburgh lowlife named Martin Fairstone, who died in a fire only a few hours after he had been seen drinking with Rebus in a local pub. Fairstone had a long history of harassing both Rebus and his close colleague, D.S. Siobhan Clarke. To make matters worse, on the night of Fairstone’s death, Rebus was hospitalized with badly burned hands.

Rebus insists that he hurt his hands in a too-hot bath, and until his suspension comes down, he is permitted to join Hogan’s investigation, although he needs Siobhan to drive him around, since his hands hurt too much to handle a steering wheel.

Unbeknown to Rebus’s superiors, there is another reason why he shouldn’t be involved in investigating the shooting: one of the victims is a relative of his, the son of his cousin Allan. He is duty-bound to report this and recuse himself from the investigation, but he doesn’t.

As Hogan’s team talks Rebus through their version of events, he spots a major hole in it. If Herdman were deranged and killing at random, why did he walk past a playground full of children to shoot these three victims? Rebus’s suspicion that something deeper is going on is confirmed when he learns that the SAS have sent two specialist investigators to look into the shooting.

Rebus visits the surviving student, James Bell, at home. Bell’s father is an ambitious Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP), Jack Bell, who has been using his son’s experience to make political capital. He has also taken the opportunity to attack the police for failing to protect children. However, Rebus knows that his motives for this are less than noble: Jack was recently caught in the company of a prostitute by a police sweep, and although he managed to escape charges by claiming that he was doing “research,” he blames the police for leaking the story to the tabloid press. While interviewing James, Rebus manages to antagonize his father.

Rebus also speaks to his long-lost cousin Allan, whose daughter has been drawn into MSP Jack Bell’s anti-police campaign. Throughout his investigation, Rebus is shadowed by the SAS’s investigators, whom Rebus suspects of covering up evidence, and perhaps planting it too.

A lead comes when he meets “Myss Teri” Cotter, a local teenager at the heart of the local Goth subculture—which in turn has close links to the local trade in ecstasy and other drugs. Through these teenage dealers, Rebus and Clarke trace the gun used by Herdman to a local gangster. They also discover a cache of drugs on a boat Herdman owned.

Their investigation is interrupted when Rebus is officially suspended for the murder of Martin Fairstone. The Edinburgh forensic pathologist Dr. Curt unofficially gives Rebus some information about Fairstone’s death, which enables Rebus to guess that Fairstone’s murder may have been linked to the same drug organization he has tied to the school shooting. He and Clarke continue their investigation, now hoping to clear Rebus as well as solving the school-shooting case.

Drawing on his army contacts and experience, Rebus discovers that the SAS investigators are concerned about Herdman’s death due to his involvement in the crash of a military helicopter on the Scottish island of Jura many years earlier. They trace a network of unofficial dealings with Irish paramilitaries across the water and surmise that these dealings never ended.

Forensic evidence from the scene of the school shooting confirms Rebus’s theory that James Bell is lying. Rebus forces Bell to confess that he killed the two students himself, in an attempt to disgrace his father, MSP Jack Bell.

Rebus and Clarke unravel the entire network of the drugs trade in the area, including smuggling to and from Ireland, and money laundering to disguise the income. They track down the gangster who supplied James Bell with the gun, and Clarke runs down the head of the smuggling operation, who attacks her and escapes, only to crash the light aircraft he has been using to smuggle drugs.

Rebus, witnessing the crash, is distraught, believing that Clarke is on board. Drinking heavily, he recalls the night he scalded his hands, and we learn that it happened during a drinking blackout. He promises himself to try to repair some of his relationships.

Meanwhile, the MSP Jack Bell hires a lawyer, and together they plot to undo the police’s case against James Bell on the grounds that Rebus should not have been involved in it.