Rebus review: Promising Ian Rankin adaptation brings us into the murky, violent world of ‘tartan noir’

It’s boom time for hard-bitten Scottish crime dramas on TV. BBC One’s reboot of Rebus arrives after the success of Neil Forsyth’s Guilt and Irvine Welsh’s Crime, which certainly puts the pressure on Richard Rankin as its lead. The 41-year-old Outlander star has to stand out not only from Ken Stott’s original portrayal of the seen-it-all Edinburgh polis but from Dougray Scott’s tortured, substance-abusing DI from Crime and Mark Bonnar’s funny, crooked lawyer from Guilt, too.

Of course, there’s the depth of characterisation to draw on – Sir Ian Rankin (no relation) has published 24 Inspector Rebus novels and counting (there’s a new one out in October) – and it doesn’t hurt that the actor has a certain physical similarity to Stott, who played the detective in four series for ITV in the Noughties. He has some of his humour and charm, too, but perhaps not quite the mordant gloom of his scowl. There’s a relatable quality to Rankin, though, which is evident from the very first shot.

It’s an unusual one: a bloodied DS John Rebus, smoking a cigarette in neon-lit darkness, turns to look at the camera, holding the audience’s gaze for several long seconds. Then he strolls over to a crashed car containing a trapped detective colleague, his mentor George “Dod” Blantyre, before continuing his walk to a nearby ambulance, inside of which sits crime boss Ger Cafferty, whom he tries to murder.

If that isn’t enough to convince us we’re in the murky, violent world of “tartan noir”, then a nasty street stabbing and a punishment for a drug-stash shakedown involving a very sharp pair of secateurs surely will. Rebus is handed the job of solving the knife attack in the historic old town, noting that it’s fine for the perpetrators to “chop each other up in the schemes, not in the City”, with his default cynicism.

What unfolds from there is a knotted tale of rival gangsters (Stuart Bowman, incidentally, was so good as crime lord Roy Lynch in Guilt that he gets the chance to double down as criminal kingpin Cafferty here), stretched loyalties and deadly acts of revenge. It’s not long before a brush with drug runners from loyalist paramilitary group the UDA adds a blowtorch to the mix. The tension is high, the danger palpable, and Rebus can’t avoid becoming morally implicated.

Meanwhile, he’s juggling his job with trying to stay off the booze, struggling to come to terms with his ex-wife’s new relationship and stay close to his daughter, and attempting to exit an affair that’s much too close to home. “Things feel like they’re unravelling, everything’s slipping out of control,” he tells his counsellor (“Andrea, ma wee shrink”). And, inevitably, where there’s a troubled, maverick cop, there’s someone from internal affairs – or in this case, professional standards – lurking close by.

There’s a healthy dose of social commentary. Rebus is introduced to his new partner, the fast-tracked DC Siobhan “Shiv” Clarke (Lucie Shorthouse), fresh from the detective course – “I hear it’s a whole week now,” he says by way of greeting. Budget cuts are further grumbled about, as well as the way the English are drawn to Edinburgh’s scenic charms – “They go to the uni and they get a degree and they fall in love with the place. So they stay and they get married and they have kids and they start f***ing Instagramming and cycling aboot the place like they’re in Denmark or something.”

Richard Rankin in ‘Rebus’ (BBC/Viaplay /Eleventh Hour/Mark Mainz)
Richard Rankin in ‘Rebus’ (BBC/Viaplay /Eleventh Hour/Mark Mainz)

Like most detective dramas, Rebus relies on the push and pull of its central relationships. Naturally, there’s history between the detective and his ex, Rhona (the excellent Amy Manson), and it hangs in the air in every interaction between them. There’s history, too, between Rebus and Cafferty, and their scenes together are charged with sly threats and counter-threats. Rebus and fast-tracker Shiv, though, are just getting to know each other – “You have no culture?” she accuses; “I have a culture of not liking things,” he replies. They’re not cooking on gas yet, that’s for sure, but there are hints that they could grow into a bankable duo.

There’s not much time to explore that, though. Events move relentlessly on in this six-parter, the darkness gradually enveloping almost everyone within it, and the lurch in the stomach that accompanies it shows Rebus is capable of holding its own. Sometimes it feels a little overworked – the dizzying shift from stressed, struggling former soldier to military-grade gangland player of Rebus’s brother Michael feels like a major stretch. And sometimes it feels as if screenwriter Gregory Burke and author Rankin are grappling with the difficulties of how to present this world of hard men, without offending the sensitivities of today’s BBC, but they get by. There’s serious competition in the crime world now, and Rebus will have to work hard to get ahead, but this is a strong start to what could turn out to be a successful franchise operation.