A Question of Blood

An Inspector Rebus Novel


By Ian Rankin

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When a former soldier and recluse murders two 17-year-old students at a posh Edinburgh boarding school, Inspector John Rebus immediately suspects there is more to the case than meets the eye.


Ita res accendent lumina rebus.
There is no prospect of an end.
James Hutton, scientist, 1785

In Memoriam –
St Leonard’s C.I.D.

The problem with writing about a real city in real time is that you have to take account of changes. It was impossible for me not to write a book about the new Scottish Parliament, for example, which is why Set in Darkness came into being. Likewise, I was halfway through the first draft of A Question of Blood when I received a text message from a detective friend. All it said was: ‘St Leonard’s no longer has a CID. Ha ha ha’. He knew I would have to move Rebus out of St Leonard’s, for the sake of a few dozen knowledgeable readers in Edinburgh, who would otherwise know that I was being economical with the realism. This explains why A Question of Blood starts with an in memoriam dedication to St Leonard’s: it would be the last of my books to be set there.

The impetus behind A Question of Blood was a point put to me by a fan at a question-and-answer session. She asked why I never talked about Edinburgh’s private school system. Around a quarter of all high-school pupils in the city attend fee-paying institutions – a much higher percentage than any other city in Scotland (and maybe even the UK). My answer on the night was glib: I think I said I didn’t know anything about such schools, so would find it hard to write about them. But she got me thinking. The Rebus novels have always examined Edinburgh’s dual identity, its Jekyll and Hyde nature. Private education is part of the city’s fabric, but also a contentious issue in some quarters. I already had it in mind that my next book would discuss the theme of the outsider. Rebus is a perennial outsider, of course, incapable of working as part of a cohesive team. On my regular record-buying trips to Cockburn Street, I would also rub shoulders with groups of Goth-style teenagers, reminding me that once upon a time I, too, had wanted to be seen by society as an outsider: they dressed as Goths; I was a punk.

Having given Rebus an armed forces background, I’ve always kept an eye on news stories concerning the military (including a clipping about a helicopter crash off the Scottish coast), and had compiled a folder of information on the effects of combat on serving soldiers. When squaddies leave the army, many of them find it difficult to revert to civilian life. Some become aggressive at home, take to the bottle, and end up homeless. They remain outsiders, in other words. I thought it would be interesting to find a story which would allow these various strands to entwine, and a shooting at a private school seemed to be the answer. I moved the action out of Edinburgh to South Queensferry, partly because I didn’t want any real schools thinking I was basing Port Edgar Academy on them, and partly because I wanted to investigate the effect such a shocking crime would have on a small, tightly knit community. Rebus, we learn, was sent to Lockerbie in the aftermath of Pan-Am 101, and he remarks on the ‘quiet dignity’ of the town. Dunblane was in my mind, too, of course, but I wouldn’t be writing a ‘Dunblane book’: I would be looking at the reasons why any one-off atrocity occurs in an apparently civilised society.

I started planning the book while in the midst of filming a three-part documentary on ‘evil’ for Channel 4, and my thinking for that series colours the thinking in A Question of Blood. I was able to interview neurologists and psychiatrists, academics and lawyers, criminologists and killers … even a friendly exorcist. The series was attempting to answer three fundamental questions: What do we mean by the term ‘evil’? Where does evil come from? And what can we do about it? The various answers I received during the course of my travels would form the moral spine of my novel. My notebook of the time records, between passages on Augustinian theodicy and Auschwitz, possible routes A Question of Blood might take. From the very start, I was looking at the title’s double meaning: blood not just as in life-blood, but also as in familial ties.

If this all sounds a tad bleak and worthy, it shouldn’t: A Question of Blood was a lot of fun to write, and I think it’s as much fun to read. In recent books, I’ve often auctioned off ‘character rights’ for various charities, and A Question of Blood contains some of my favourites. For example, there’s a cat called Boethius in the book only because its owner paid for it to be mentioned (and sent me photos and a potted biography to make sure I got it right). Meantime, a serving police officer stationed in Edinburgh also won the right to appear in the book – nice and easy, I thought, until I learned that he was Australian and had a doctorate in astronomy (or some other similar discipline). His name is Brendan Innes and he’s a cop in the book, but I don’t mention his nationality or academic credentials: as I explained to him, fiction has to be realistic, unlike real life!

There’s also a character called Peacock Johnson. He, too, won the right to be in the book. I was told to look at his website, which showed me a shady-looking character in Hawaiian shirt and Elvis shades. His blog made it clear he operated just this side of the law. I emailed and told him I thought he’d make a good gun-runner in the book. He said that would be fine, and could I please also mention his pal, Wee Evil Bob? I agreed. Turned out I really enjoyed creating Mr Johnson’s fictional alter ego, and when the book was finished I emailed him to let him know.

The email bounced back.

I went to his website.

It was no longer there.

So I was forced to turn sleuth, and found out that the band Belle and Sebastian had been in attendance at the character auction. Curiously, Peacock’s email address shared similarities with the one for the band, and their bassist, Stuart David, was known to be a bit of a practical joker. Eventually he ’fessed up. I’d thought Peacock real, but the whole thing had been a fiction from the start. What’s more, Stuart had written a novel of his own … and guess who his hero was?

Peacock Johnson.

Even fictional characters, it seems, can have more than one side to their personality …

May 2005

Day One



‘There’s no mystery,’ Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke said. ‘Herdman lost his marbles, that’s all.’

She was sitting by a hospital bed in Edinburgh’s recently opened Royal Infirmary. The complex was to the south of the city, in an area called Little France. It had been built at considerable expense on a green-field site, but already there were complaints about a lack of useable space inside and car-parking space outside. Siobhan had found a bay eventually, only to discover that she would be charged for the privilege.

This much she had told Detective Inspector John Rebus on her arrival at his bedside. Rebus’s hands were bandaged to the wrists. When she’d poured him some tepid water, he’d cupped the plastic beaker to his mouth, drinking carefully as she watched.

‘See?’ he’d chided her afterwards. ‘Didn’t spill a drop.’

But then he’d spoilt the act by letting the beaker slip as he tried to manoeuvre it back on to the bedside cabinet. The rim of its base hit the floor, Siobhan snatching it first bounce.

‘Good catch,’ Rebus had conceded.

‘No harm done. It was empty anyway.’

Since then, she’d been making what both of them knew was small-talk, skirting questions she was desperate to ask and instead filling him in on the slaughter in South Queensferry.

Three dead, one wounded. A quiet coastal town just north of the city. A private school, taking boys and girls from age five to eighteen. Roll of six hundred, now minus two.

The third body belonged to the gunman, who’d turned his weapon on himself. No mystery, as Siobhan had said.

Except for the why.

‘He was like you,’ she was saying. ‘Ex-army, I mean. They reckon that’s why he did it: grudge against society.’

Rebus noticed that her hands were now being kept firmly in the pockets of her jacket. He guessed they were clenched and that she didn’t know she was doing it.

‘The papers say he ran a business,’ he said.

‘He had a power-boat, used to take out water-skiers.’

‘But he had a grudge?’

She shrugged. Rebus knew she was wishing there was a place for her at the scene, anything to take her mind off the other inquiry – internal, this time, and with her at its core.

She was staring at the wall above his head, as if there was something there she was interested in other than the paintwork and an oxygen outlet.

‘You haven’t asked me how I’m feeling,’ he said.

She looked at him. ‘How are you feeling?’

‘I’m going stir-crazy, thank you for asking.’

‘You’ve only been in one night.’

‘Feels like more.’

‘What do the doctors say?’

‘Nobody’s been to see me yet, not today. Whatever they tell me, I’m out of here this afternoon.’

‘And then what?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘You can’t go back to work.’ Finally, she studied his hands. ‘How’re you going to drive or type a report? What about taking phone calls?’

‘I’ll manage.’ He looked around him, his turn now to avoid eye contact. Surrounded by men much his age and sporting the same greyish pallor. The Scots diet had taken its toll on this lot, no doubt about it. One guy was coughing for want of a cigarette. Another looked like he had breathing problems. The overweight, swollen-livered mass of local manhood. Rebus held up one hand so he could rub a forearm over his left cheek, feeling the unshaven rasp. The bristles, he knew, would be the same silvered colour as the walls of his ward.

‘I’ll manage,’ he repeated into the silence, lowering the arm again and wishing he hadn’t raised it in the first place. His fingers sparked with pain as the blood pounded through them. ‘Have they spoken to you?’ he asked.

‘About what?’

‘Come on, Siobhan …’

She looked at him, unblinking. Her hands emerged from their hiding place as she leaned forwards on the chair.

‘I’ve another session this afternoon.’

‘Who with?’

‘The boss.’ Meaning Detective Chief Superintendent Gill Templer. Rebus nodded, satisfied that as yet it wasn’t going any higher.

‘What will you say to her?’ he asked.

‘There’s nothing to tell. I didn’t have anything to do with Fairstone’s death.’ She paused, another unasked question hanging between them: Did you? She seemed to be waiting for Rebus to say something, but he stayed silent. ‘She’ll want to know about you,’ Siobhan added. ‘How you ended up in here.’

‘I scalded myself,’ Rebus said. ‘It’s stupid, but that’s what happened.’

‘I know that’s what you say happened …’

‘No, Siobhan, it’s what happened. Ask the doctors if you don’t believe me.’ He looked around again. ‘Always supposing you can find one.’

‘Probably still combing the grounds for a parking space.’

The joke was weak enough, but Rebus smiled anyway. She was letting him know she wouldn’t be pressing him any further. His smile was one of gratitude.

‘Who’s in charge at South Queensferry?’ he asked her, signalling a change of subject.

‘I think DI Hogan’s out there.’

‘Bobby’s a good guy. If it can be wrapped up fast, he’ll do it.’

‘Media circus by all accounts. Grant Hood’s been drafted in to handle liaison.’

‘Leaving us short-changed at St Leonard’s?’ Rebus was thoughtful. ‘All the more reason for me to get back there.’

‘Especially if I’m suspended …’

‘You won’t be. You said it yourself, Siobhan – you didn’t have anything to do with Fairstone. Way I see it, it was an accident. Now that something bigger’s come along, maybe it’ll die a natural death, so to speak.’

‘“An accident”.’ She was repeating his words.

He nodded slowly. ‘So don’t worry about it. Unless, of course, you really did top the bastard.’

‘John …’ There was a warning in her tone. Rebus smiled again and managed a wink.

‘Only joking,’ he said. ‘I know damned fine who Gill’s going to want to see in the frame for Fairstone.’

‘He died in a fire, John.’

‘And that means I killed him?’ Rebus held up both hands, turning them this way and that. ‘Scalds, Siobhan. That’s all, just scalds.’

She rose from the chair. ‘If you say so, John.’ Then she stood in front of him, while he lowered his hands, biting back the sudden rush of agony. A nurse was approaching, saying something about changing his dressings.

‘I’m just going,’ Siobhan informed her. Then, to Rebus: ‘I’d hate to think you’d do something so stupid and imagine it was on my behalf.’

He started shaking his head slowly, and she turned and walked away. ‘Keep the faith, Siobhan!’ he called after her.

‘That your daughter?’ the nurse asked, making conversation.

‘Just a friend, someone I work with.’

‘You something to do with the Church?’

Rebus winced as she started unpeeling one of his bandages. ‘What makes you say that?’

‘The way you were talking about faith.’

‘Job like mine, you need more than most.’ He paused. ‘But then, maybe it’s the same for you?’

‘Me?’ She smiled, her eyes on her handiwork. She was short and plain-looking and businesslike. ‘Can’t hang around waiting for faith to do anything for you. So how did you manage this?’ She meant his blistered hands.

‘I got into hot water,’ he explained, feeling a bead of sweat beginning its slow journey down one temple. Pain I can handle, he thought to himself. The problem was everything else. ‘Can we switch to something lighter than bandages?’

‘You keen to be on your way?’

‘Keen to pick up a cup without dropping it.’ Or a phone, he thought. ‘Besides, there’s got to be someone out there needs the bed more than I do.’

‘Very public-minded, I’m sure. We’ll have to see what the doctor says.’

‘And which doctor would that be?’

‘Just have a bit of patience, eh?’

Patience: the one thing he had no time for.

‘Maybe you’ll have some more visitors,’ the nurse added.

He doubted it. No one knew he was here except Siobhan. He’d got one of the staff to call her, so she could tell Templer that he was taking a sick day, maybe two at the most. Thing was, the call had brought Siobhan running. Maybe he’d known it would; maybe that’s why he’d phoned her rather than the station.

That had been yesterday afternoon. Yesterday morning, he’d given up the fight and walked into his GP’s surgery. The locum doctor had taken one look and told him to get himself to hospital. Rebus had taken a taxi to A&E, embarrassed when the driver had to dig the money for the fare out of his trouser pockets.

‘Did you hear the news?’ the cabbie had asked. ‘A shooting at a school.’

‘Probably an air-gun.’

But the man had shaken his head. ‘Worse than that, according to the radio …’

At A&E, Rebus had waited his turn. Eventually, his hands had been dressed, the injuries not serious enough to merit a trip to the Burns Unit out at Livingston. But he was running a high temperature, so they’d decided to keep him in, an ambulance transferring him from A&E to Little France. He thought they were probably keeping an eye on him in case he went into shock or something. Or it could be they feared he was one of those self-harm people. Nobody’d come to talk to him about that. Maybe that’s why they were hanging on to him: waiting for a psychiatrist with a free moment.

He wondered about Jean Burchill, the one person who might notice his sudden disappearance from home. But things had cooled there a little. They managed a night together maybe once every ten days. Spoke on the phone more frequently, met for coffee some afternoons. Already it felt like a routine. He recalled that a while ago he’d dated a nurse for a short time. He didn’t know if she still worked locally. He could always ask, but her name was escaping him. It was a problem: he had trouble sometimes with names. Forgot the odd appointment. Not a big deal really, just part and parcel of the ageing process. But in court he found himself referring to his notes more and more when giving evidence. Ten years ago he hadn’t needed a script or any prompts. He’d acted with more confidence, and that always impressed juries – so lawyers had told him.

‘There now.’ His nurse was straightening up. She’d put fresh grease and gauze on his hands, wrapped the old bandages back round them. ‘Feel more comfortable?’

He nodded. The skin felt a little cooler, but he knew it wouldn’t last.

‘You due any more painkillers?’ The question was rhetorical. She checked the chart at the bottom of his bed. Earlier, after a visit to the toilet, he’d looked at it himself. It gave his temperature and medication, nothing else. No coded information meant to be understood only by those in the know. No record of the story he’d given when he was being examined.

I’d run a hot bath … slipped and fell in.

The doctor had made a kind of noise at the back of his throat, something that said he would accept this without necessarily believing it. Overworked, lacking sleep – not his job to pry. Doctor rather than detective.

‘I can give you some paracetamol?’ the nurse suggested.

‘Any chance of a beer to wash them down?’

She smiled that professional smile again. The years she’d worked in the NHS, she probably didn’t hear too many original lines.

‘I’ll see what I can do.’

‘You’re an angel,’ Rebus said, surprising himself. It was the sort of thing he felt a patient might say, one of those comfortable clichés. She was on her way, and he wasn’t sure she’d heard. Maybe it was something in the nature of hospitals. Even if you didn’t feel ill, they still had an effect, slowing you down, making you compliant. Institutionalising you. It could be to do with the colour scheme, the background hum. Maybe the heating of the place was complicit, too. Back at St Leonard’s, they had a special cell for the ‘maddies’. It was bright pink, and was supposed to calm them down. Why think a similar psychology wasn’t being employed here? Last thing they wanted was a stroppy patient, shouting the odds and jumping out of bed every five minutes. Hence the suffocating number of blankets, tightly tucked in to further hamper movement. Just lie still … propped by pillows … bask in the heat and light … Don’t make a fuss. Any more of this, he felt, and he’d start forgetting his own name. The world outside would cease to matter. No job waiting for him. No Fairstone. No maniac spraying gunfire through the classrooms …

Rebus turned on his side, using his legs to push free the sheets. It was a two-way fight, like Harry Houdini in a straitjacket. The man in the next bed along had opened his eyes and was watching. Rebus winked at him as he levered his feet into fresh air.

‘Just you keep tunnelling,’ he told the man. ‘I’ll go for a walk, trickle the earth out of my trouser-leg.’

The reference seemed lost on his fellow prisoner …

Siobhan was back at St Leonard’s, loitering by the drinks machine. A couple of uniforms were seated at a table in the small canteen, munching on sandwiches and crisps. The drinks machine was in the adjoining hallway, with a view out to the car park. If she were a smoker, she would have an excuse to step outside, where there was less chance of Gill Templer finding her. But she didn’t smoke. She knew she could try ducking into the under-ventilated gym further along the corridor, or she could take a walk to the cells. But there was nothing to stop Templer using the station’s PA system to hunt down her quarry. Word would get around anyway that she was on the premises. St Leonard’s was like that: no hiding place. She yanked on the cola can’s ring-pull, knowing what the uniforms at the table would be discussing – same thing as everyone else.

Three dead in school shoot-out.

She’d scanned each of the morning’s papers. There were grainy photos of both the teenage victims: boys, seventeen years old. The words ‘tragedy’, ‘waste’, ‘shock’ and ‘carnage’ had been bandied about by the journalists. Alongside the news story, additional reporting filled page after page: Britain’s burgeoning gun culture … school security shortfalls … a history of suicide killers. She’d studied the photos of the assassin – apparently, only three different snaps had so far been available to the media. One was very blurry indeed, as if capturing a ghost rather than something made of flesh and blood. Another showed a man in overalls, taking hold of a rope as he made to board a small boat. He was smiling, head turned towards the camera. Siobhan got the feeling it was a publicity shot for his water-skiing business.

The third was a head-and-shoulders portrait from the man’s days in military service. Herdman, his name was. Lee Herdman, aged thirty-six. Resident in South Queensferry, owner of a speedboat. There were photos of the yard where his business operated from. ‘A scant half-mile from the site of the shocking event’, as one paper gushed.

Ex-forces, probably easy enough for him to get a gun. Drove into the school grounds, parked next to all the staff cars. Left his driver’s-side door open, obviously in a hurry. Witnesses saw him barge into the school. His first and only stop, the common room. Three people inside. Two now dead, one wounded. Then a shot to his own temple, and that was that. Criticisms were already flying – how was it possible, post-Dunblane, for Christ’s sake, for someone just to walk into a school? Had Herdman shown any signs that he might be about to crack? Could doctors or social workers be blamed? The government? Somebody, anybody. It had to be someone’s fault. No point just blaming Herdman: he was dead. There had to be a scapegoat out there. Siobhan suspected that by tomorrow they’d be wheeling out the usual suspects: violence in modern culture … films and TV … pressures of life … Then it would quieten down again. One statistic she had taken notice of – since the laws on gun ownership had been tightened after the Dunblane massacre, gun offences in the UK had actually risen. She knew what the gun lobby would make of that …

One reason everyone at St Leonard’s was talking about the murders was that the survivor’s father was a Member of the Scottish Parliament – and not just any MSP. Jack Bell had found himself in trouble six months back, apprehended by police during a trawl of the kerb-crawling district down in Leith. Residents had been holding demonstrations, petitioning the constabulary to take action against the problem. The constabulary had reacted by swooping down one night, netting Jack Bell MSP amongst others.

But Bell had protested his innocence, putting his appearance in the area down to ‘fact-finding’. His wife had backed him up, as had most of his party, with the result that Police HQ had decided to let the matter drop. But not before the media had had their fun at Bell’s expense, leading the MSP to accuse the police of being in cahoots with the ‘gutter press’, of hounding him because of who he was.

The resentment had festered, leading Bell to make several speeches in parliament, usually remarking on inefficiency within the force and the need for change. All of which, it was agreed, might lead to a problem.

Because Bell had been arrested by a team from Leith, the very station now in charge of the shooting at Port Edgar Academy.

And South Queensferry just happened to be his constituency …

As if this wasn’t enough to get tongues wagging, one of the murder victims happened to be the son of a judge.

All of which led to the second reason why everyone at St Leonard’s was talking. They felt left out. Being a Leith call rather than St Leonard’s, there was nothing to do but sit and watch, hoping there might be a need to draft officers in. But Siobhan doubted it. The case was cut and dried, the gunman’s body laid out in the mortuary, his two victims somewhere nearby. It wouldn’t be enough to deflect Gill Templer from—

‘DS Clarke to the Chief Super’s office!’ The squawked imperative came from a loudspeaker attached to the ceiling above her head. The uniforms in the canteen turned to look at her. She tried to appear calm, sipping from her can. Her insides suddenly felt cold – nothing to do with the chilled drink.

‘DS Clarke to the Chief Super!’


On Sale
Oct 13, 2010
Page Count
432 pages
Back Bay Books

Ian Rankin

About the Author

Ian Rankin is a #1 international bestselling author. Winner of an Edgar Award and the recipient of a Gold Dagger for fiction and the Chandler-Fulbright Award, he lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with his wife and their two sons.

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