Retired detective John Rebus investigates the deaths and disappearances of young women in northern Scotland while he is a consultant to an Edinburgh cold case squad. John Rebus was attending the funeral of a colleague, jimmy Wallace who died from cancer. He saw familiar faces like Tommy Beamish and ruefully reflected on the toll his work took on him and his friends. Rebus had retired as a detective with the Lothian and Borders Police in Scotland and was now a civilian consultant with their cold case squad. After he returned to the cold case office he took a call intended for DI Magrath who had retired six years previously. The caller was Nina Hazlitt who was inquiring about the disappearance of her daughter Sally. She had been in contact with Magrath and was following-up on the case. She thought there might be a connection between her daughter's disappearance and the deaths of young women on the roads north of Edinburgh. When Rebus suggested she speak with a detective on the active squad, she replied she had just gotten another brush-off, this time from a woman named Clarke.
Rebus had worked with Detective inspector Siobhan Clarke before his retirement. When he contacted her he learned that she was aware of Mrs. Hazlitt's concern. Since Sally's disappearance twelve years ago two young women were murdered in the same general area and another, Annette McKie disappeared when she should have been taking a bus to Inverness. Rebus called in the records on all the cases.
The cold case office was headed by Detective Sergeant Daniel Cowan who saw his position as a means to the end of a promotion within the police administration. Other members were retired DI Peter Bliss who was older than Rebus and DC Elaine Robinson. There were rumors that their unit would me merged into an all-Scotland cold case office. Meanwhile Rebus tried to adjust his role as a researcher into cold cases with his inclination to be active in pursuing leads even when it meant that he would step on the line of accepted procedures. He maintained a connection with Clarke and indirectly DCI James Page, her supervisor.
He contacted police officers who had worked on the Zoe Beddows and Brigid Young cases and met with friends and family. An interesting finding was that Beddows and McKie had send pictures of their location before they vanished. Rebus began a search of the highways in order to identify relevant sites. He learned that McKie's brother, Darryl Christie, worked as a bar manager for Frank Hammell, a rival of "Big Ger" Cafferty.
Rebus' contacts included Morris "Big Ger" Cafferty, a notorious Edinburgh crime boss. Cafferty would provide information about McKie. Her father was Derek Christie who made a "runner" to Australia leaving Gail McKie with two children, Darryl and Annette. She was now dating Frank Hammell. Rebus wondered if Annette was kidnapped by Frank's enemies or if Frank himself was involved.
Rebus' meeting with Cafferty was noted by the Complaints division which threatened to block Rebus' application for a return to active duty. Rebus continued to pursue leads with DI Clarke's team. DC Christine Esson looked into Annette's internet connections and the people who worked for Frank Hammell. Thomas Robertson whom Rebus saw at a Hammell construction site had a conviction for attempted rape. He was arrested months after Beddows' disappearance. During a session with Hammell Hammell suggested to Rebus that Cafferty might be behind McKie's disappearance and that Rebus was interested in protecting Cafferty. Rebus denied that Cafferty was his "pal". Soon after Robertson vanished and Darryl Christie called Cafferty on his private phone.
Rebus continued to check out towns on the A9. He stopped at Dornoch and Edderton. The police had sent out pictures of the missing women and were receiving many calls. The person sighted most frequently was Sally Hazlitt who was seen in hotels and restaurants. Her mother had phoned Rebus several times, met him in Edinburgh and given him a book about British myths she thought might be relevant. In the course of his travels he met Sergeant Gavin Arnold in Inverness. They were able to track down a woman using aliases but who probably was Sally Hazlitt. Rebus was reluctant to call her mother.
The police learned about two more young women who went missing in the Edderton area. Rebus attended a staff meeting where DCI Page told Clarke, Esson and the others about the new cases added to the list. He agreed that Rebus could follow up and return to Edderton. Meanwhile Cafferty contacted Darryl McKie to offer support and met Rebus at a bar. He again suggested that Hammell might be involved. Their encounter was noted by Fox and Kaye of the Complaints department.
The Edinburgh police now were a group that included Page, Clarke and Rebus. In Inverness they teamed up with Detective Chief Superintendent Dempsey and her staff. They were able to locate a spot outside Edderton where they could set up headquarters. With maps and dogs they found five corpses, including that of Annette McKie. The others were Jemima Salton, Amy Mearns, Zoe Beddows and Brigid Young, but not Sally Hazlitt. Thomas Robertson was ruled out as a suspect since he was mugged and hospitalized. He was unable to identify his assailant.
Rebus learned from Peter Bliss that his cold case unit was closing. Bliss suggested that he and Clarke let Magrath know. Magrath lived in the area around Edderton. Rebus was suspicious after they found an old Land Rover on his property and Magrath denied knowing Nina Hazlitt despite the newspaper clippings in his house. While in a bar in Inverness with Arnold Hammell and Nina Hazlitt held a press conference with Dempsey's nephew, a local reporter. Dempsey became angry when they criticized the police. She complained to Page who ordered Rebus to return to Edinburgh. After getting a call from Sally Hazlitt aka Sally Mercer he made a detour to Glasgow where he met her. She spoke about her history of abuse and requested her address and phone not be given to her mother. Rebus later told her mother that Sally did not want to see her.
Back in Edinburgh Rebus helped close his office. He returned home to be met by Darryl Christie interested in finding out about suspects. The next day Hammell appeared. Rebus confronted him about having an affair with Annette since unidentified hair was found on her. Hammell provided a DNA sample and asked that the affair be kept a secret from her mother. Soon after Darryl who was aware of the affair threatened him with exposure unless he agreed to turn over his business to him. Hammell left town.
The Inverness police followed up a lead from a local farmer who told them that Gregor Magrath had a brother Kenneth who operated an electrician's business in the Edderton area. After his retirement Gregor and his wife moved north to be near the brother even though they preferred a warmer climate. Rebus then headed north and went to Kenneth's house where he met Kenneth and his wife. He was able to get some information from them which he passed on to DCS Dempsey in Inverness. Rebus then called in favors from Clarke and Arnold to get evidence to back up his theory. The Magraths were then brought in for questioning only to be released for lack of evidence.
Rebus returned to Edinburgh. The Complaints board dropped their case against him. He was invited to reapply for active duty. He learned that Darryl and Cafferty had a truce, and that Darryl not Hammell had assaulted Robertson. Rebus then set in motion a scheme to have Kenneth Magrath confess. He suggested to Darryl that he and his men abduct Kenneth and take him to the shallow grave he used for Hammond. Rebus and Clarke followed Darryl and then stopped Darryl from assaulting Kenneth. He let them leave and took Kenneth to the Inverness police station where Arnold was waiting. Rebus hoped that Kenneth would be too fearful of retaliation by Darryl to mention his role in the scheme. He and Clarke then left.
Best part of story, including ending:
Enjoyed the fast pace of the story until the last fifty pages when it bogged down in capturing Magrath. Rebus' behavior became redundant, i.e. how often did he have to return to Edinburgh, challenge the authorities, etc. At least the story did not have a lengthy subplot with the Magraths.
Best scene in story:
Favorite scenes were the sections where Rebus is driving around the A9 interviewing neighbors and suspects. This part ends with the discovery of the corpses. After that the story resembles the first third of the book where Rebus' behavior is a recurrent implicit and/or explicit theme.
Opinion about the main character:
Rebus' skepticism, persistence and ability to relate to a variety of people are all admirable traits. Sometimes his rebellious behavior becomes tedious.