Book review: A Game Called Malice, by Ian Rankin and Simon Reade

Featuring an intriguing cast and a play-within-the-play, this Rebus drama from Ian Rankin and Simon Reade finds the veteran sleuth trying to puzzle out who’s provoking who. Review by Stuart Kelly

This is Ian Rankin’s third published play, after Dark Road, co-written with Mark Thomson and Long Shadows, co-written with Rona Munro. I suppose for completeness’ sake as regards the stage I should also mention the libretto for Gesualdo, the opera commissioned with Craig Armstrong as composer. Rankin has of course also written graphic novels, presented various television programmes and been adapted for television and film. This work is written with Simon Reade, and as with the collaboration with Rona Munro, a pedant might argue the title is Rebus: A Game Called Malice. Make no mistake. If the dramaturge is after the novelist, even without his noble moniker, they both lack the prominence of the fictional detective. Curiously, Rankin has another work out at the moment – a novella called The Rise, set in London and with new characters, available for the princely sum of £0.00 on Kindle and Audible as part of the Amazon Original Stories. Even though its editor says it is reminiscent of Ballard and Chandler, I am too thrawn for reading on devices. It might be interesting to see if the cachet of Rebus sells more copies than a book by the same author given away for free.

Rankin does not write as if Rebus were an albatross (even though it might be one that lays golden eggs). That said, in the words of Andrew Marvell, “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot drawing near”. Rebus “retired” in Exit Music in 2007, and has subsequently appeared in seven books; the novels have increasingly stressed his frailty through chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his desire to set matters in order, both professionally and personally, and a degree of disconnect with a changing world. The initial idea of the Rebus novels unfolding in “real time” was ingenious, as readers could identify with things such as a new Scottish parliament, a smoking ban or the G8 summit at Gleneagles. Rebus almost skirted Covid and I can’t see him on TikTok. Death need not be an impediment to his career: Sophie Hannah has done a fine job with new Poirot novels that fit with established continuity, and Rankin himself has worked on the prequel to William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw books with The Dark Remains.

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A Game Called Malice is set in the post-Exit Music period. In the dramatis personae Rebus is “early-to-mid 60s. A retired police officer. Dogged, socially awkward”, so in the Rebus canon we are within the past decade. It does need much more than this because, frankly, Rebus doesn’t need too much of an introduction, but there is a reason (and a good one) for the reticence.

Ian Rankin PIC: John Devlin / The ScotsmanIan Rankin PIC: John Devlin / The Scotsman
Ian Rankin PIC: John Devlin / The Scotsman

The other characters are Stephanie, a lawyer with whom Rebus (who is her “plus one”) has worked, and two couples. Harriet is the hostess, of “old money” and has been widowed. Her new husband does something vague to do with money, some of which makes its way to the casino of Jack, a smarmy individual who is quite evidently not the clean potato. He is accompanied by Candida, a social media influencer and sharper than the average bit of arm-candy she seems to be. It is set in the New Town, all Palladian architecture and Colourist paintings, and Harriet has devised a game – the titular Malice – as after-dinner entertainment. This is an elegant little set-up. To what extent do the events in the game parallel the lives of the guests? If it is an exercise in needling, who does Harriet hope to provoke? The game has the same role as The Murder of Gonzago (Hamlet’s own name for the play-within-the-play is The Mousetrap) – so just a quick jump away to the title of the most famous theatrical whodunnit. The game may begin with what it reveals about the guests. The stakes are raised considerably when the chef’s body is discovered in the house but off-stage.

I want to be very clear that the next point is not in any way supercilious, dismissive or arch. A Game Called Malice would be an excellent piece for amateur dramatic companies. This may be a surprise to regular readers; but my Grandpa was the regional representative for the National Operatic and Dramatic Association. There is an indisputable skill about creating work which is appropriate for particular companies. I rather miss the days of accompanying him to Journey’s End, Hobson’s Choice, Thunder Rock and The Magistrate. The central character here is well known, so you don’t need to be John Hannah or Ken Stott to make Rebus Rebus. The other characters are not two-dimensional but they are types, so each gets to reveal a different side of themselves. Each of them, of necessity, has to be offstage at some point to be the murderer – more difficult to choreograph than one might think. The play observes the classical unities of space, time and action and has a small cast each with their own twists and red-herrings (their individual “moment to shine”). Saying that something is consummately well-crafted ought not to seem faint praise.

Rankin claims to loiter over a G and T during the interval to see if the audience has guessed the murderer. It is guessable, but that’s not the point of seeing it.

A Game Called Malice, by Ian Rankin and Simon Reade, Orion, £18.99

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