By December 3, 2011 1 Comments Read More →

Rankin-sense and Myrrh(der), or Discussing a Series in Your Book Group

I love Ian Rankin’s John Rebus mystery series. Rebus is a  curmudgeonly soul, and sometimes bends the rules of policing or conventional morality to get to the villains he’s chasing. He’s terrible at maintaining his own personal relationships, mostly because he’s married to his job. But deep down, he maintains a strong ethical code and is capable of evaluating his own behavior without becoming tiresome.  Whether he’s after a criminal or battling corruption and stupidity in his own department, he’s a hero for whom you can root, and yet he does so without being annoyingly perfect. Rebus makes mistakes, but he keeps trying, and to me that makes an enjoyable and believable character.

Rankin wrote this series (he ended it at 17 books, at least for now, with 2007’s Exit Music), with surprising humor and the consistent ability to turn a phrase. He makes good use of popular culture references. Over the course of the series, the secondary characters become interesting in their own right, and the villains are colorful and frightening. Perhaps most of all, Rankin captures the daily life and locations of Edinburgh, and the political currents that affect Rebus’s cases. I’ve always enjoyed his portrayal of the city, and when I had a chance to visit Scotland this September, I became even more of an admirer. Everywhere I went in Edinburgh I saw streets,  neighborhoods, and sights that I’d encountered in the Rebus series. While the city is not quite as rough as the Rebus series might make you think, he captures the side of it that tourists at the Castle or on the Royal Mile might not otherwise encounter.

A book group often shares a common reading of the first book in a series like this, but that can be problematic. Some readers may already be well into the series, or the first book may not capture the charms of the series as a whole.  Often it takes a few books for good series writing to work up a head of steam, as secondary characters are developed more fully. For instance, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum mysteries, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasies, or Sue Grafton’s alphabetic Kinsey Milhone stories are just not as fun until you’ve  plunged a few books into the thicket.

Instead, you might consider devoting a meeting to the series as a whole. Set a ground rule that readers should not reveal critical plot points in the particular books they choose. That’s not really where the best ground for discussion is anyway. Instead, you might pursue questions like which secondary characters are your favorites, how important setting or other contextual elements are to the series, when the series reaches it’s high point, or what events or actions in the book each reader chose are most typical or definitive of a central character like Inspector Rebus. For fun, bring thematic foods or maps or pictures of series locations; outline your own “typical” entry in the series based on what you’ve collectively learned about it; or play the game of casting the roles in films of the series.



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

1 Comment on "Rankin-sense and Myrrh(der), or Discussing a Series in Your Book Group"

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  1. Gary Niebuhr says:

    I want to let you know I did read the article but the title wins hands down.

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