I started reading Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels a couple of years ago and the character immediately became one of my favorites, ranking alongside Spenser, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, Alex Delaware, and V.I. Warshawski. John Rebus is simply a fascinating police detective.
The Beat Goes On collects all of Rankin's Inspector Rebus short stories and presents them in chronological order. Reading through them is a delightful journey through the history of this character.
I tend to be cautious about short stories in the mystery genre. The short form is too short to create truly compelling whodunits. The mystery aspect must necessarily be rather simplistic, due to spatial constraints.
The reason Rankin's short stories work so well is because the mystery isn't the point. He uses these stories to offer snapshots of Rebus' life. The cases he works on in the pages of this collection range from the mundane to the bizarre, and a couple of the stories are written from the point of view of other characters, but all of them show us a bit more of Rebus' personality. These stories add detail and dimension to the man and his world.
Devoted readers of the Inspector Rebus novels have watched the character develop over the years, certainly, but each individual novel takes place in its own bubble of time. What chronology we have for Rebus exists in our own minds, as we connect those bubbles together. The short stories in The Beat Goes On span the decades from the mid-1980s through 2010—the full span of the first nineteen Rebus novels. By presenting them in chronological order, all in one place, Rankin makes the evolution of the character explicit. It's really quite wonderful.
That being said: I wouldn't recommend this collection for anyone who's looking for an entrée into the world of Inspector Rebus. These are snapshots from various periods of his life—embellishments and elaborations—but they don't go into depth. Characters come and go without a great deal of explanation as to who they are, or the full nature and history of their relationship to Rebus. These are stories written for fans who already know the background from the novels.
For those of us who are already fans, these are welcome moments to spend with one of our favorite characters.
One other thing I noticed, apropos of nothing much, Rankin has a thing for setting short stories during the holidays. Several of the stories in The Beat Goes On take place during Christmas and New Year's. There are a few appearances by people dressed as Santa and Rebus spends a couple of evenings patrolling New Year's festivals. I don't know why I'm so taken with the presence of the holidays in these stories but it's a phenomenon which struck me.