John Rebus is in danger, his followers will be surprised to learn, of turning into Miss Marple. But for the flashes of deadpan humour and some familiar faces in the supporting line-up (Edinburgh’s facades among them), there’s a distinct touch of the Agatha Christies about “Atonement”, the one new tale Ian Rankin has included in The Complete Short Stories (Orion, £17.99). This isn’t so much because the story begins with old people “dropping like flies” but because Rankin here shifts the emphasis away from Rebus’ own personal demons towards a probing moral tone and a knowing intuition about human behaviour. His firm but gentle insistence that the elderly expiate their guilty secrets is curiously touching and, arguably, the only new note that Rankin strikes in the stories included here.
The volume comprises Rankin’s two previously published short story collections, A Good Hanging and Beggars Banquet. Though Rankin writes these stories by way of a break from his more complex Rebus novels, nevertheless the troubled cop features heavily and Rankin consistently re-establishes the familiar mood of sullied idealism. But the concision of these stories – even more so when Rebus’ intense presence is absent – only emphasises the genre’s requirement that the gaps in each mystery be filled in like the blanks of a crossword. Rankin wraps each tale up as neatly as a fish supper, along with any mood he’s established on the way. An exception is “Glimmer”, Rankin’s homage to The Rolling Stones – an atmospheric attempt to capture the drug-hazed demise of the sixties – but for the most part there is nothing new in this collection apart from its bulk and the merest hint that Rankin could break the mould to striking effect if he had a mind to.
Susie Maguire, on the other hand, makes it quite clear in her second collection of short stories, Furthermore (Polygon, £8.99), that under no circumstances is she going to be pigeon-holed into a single style of story-telling. From comic monologue to nostalgic recollection, from the attempted rape of a teenager to the desperation of book snob, Maguire shifts direction with the agility of a lightweight boxer. You never know where she’s going to punch from next.
If there’s a single thread that runs through these stories, it’s the unreliability, selfishness and even down-right nastiness of men. Maguire cuts them down to size with zest, most damning at her most satirical, as of “The Man of the World who Knows Facts”, and likes to argue the toss about tomato soup.
One suspects, however, that Maguire is anxious not to be pinned merely as a funny writer. In the attempt, some of her effects can be a little heavy-handed, not least in her penchant for the punch line. A technique drawn from Maguire’s other life as a stand-up comedienne, here she uses it most often to shock – the reader has been softened up and here comes the blinder. To cite an example, such as the jolt with which she concludes the tape-recorded message from a former lover in “S.W.A.L.K.”, is to give a story’s game away; it is also to realise how separated these endings feel from the stories that preceded them, themselves full of gently-paced observations and wry humour.
Similarly, the way in which she links disrespect for both immigrants and women in “French Lessons” is none too subtle (though this insightful story of teenage recklessness surely contains the germ for a longer work aimed at that age group). Far more effective is the ironic connection she achieves between the dysfunctional politics of Northern Ireland and a family’s domestic disruption in “United Kingdom 1989”.
But nor is true that Maguire is only successful in her comic monologues (though if she ever chose to publish an entire sequence of stories featuring the irrepressible Marina McLaughlin, here enthusing about astral travel, she’d probably have a hit on her hands). Just as effective are those moments when she allows her characters to slip beyond the trappings of realism into something a little more fantastical. “The Laws of Motion”, the study of a woman suffering from serious depression, concludes with her stretching, half naked, towards the sky from the rooftop of a departmental shopping store. It’s about as realistic as Dick van Dyke springing across the chimney pots of London; nevertheless the scene evokes a silent cheer because we know the heroine stands a mere roof tile away from jumping into oblivion. There is more possibility of self-belief in this single scene than when Maguire was trying to persuade us that a haircut and pampering was enough to shake a single mother from her failure to cope. It’s a moment of real inspiration, perhaps only possible in fiction.
If on occasion, Maguire fails to play to her strengths, neither does she rest on her laurels. She risks the possibility that “if you like that, you won’t like this” – and delivers as a result a collection of entertaining, refreshing unpredictability.