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Literary Frenemies – An Ian Rankin Reading List

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Posted by Mary Ann

Literature and storytelling are full of what today we would call “frenemies.” In many great stories there are two characters who oppose each other bitterly, but in some ways are very much alike.

Ian Rankin’s Detective John Rebus and Edinburgh gangster “Big Ger” Cafferty are such a pair. These two have been battling and trying to out-scheme each other for several books now, though sometimes they end up drawing on one another’s expertise (a sticky business for Rebus, since most of Cafferty’s expertise is of the criminal kind). In turn, Cafferty spends a lot of time trying to manipulate Rebus. They are both old-school guys; pugnacious, profane and tough, as well as very, very smart. And both are watching the world they have known change quickly.

Here’s a list of books that feature literary frenemies. Several of these pairs hail directly from Edinburgh, Ian Rankin’s home:

jekyll-hydeDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Rankin has acknowledged that these two played a part in his creation of Rebus and Cafferty. As most of the western world knows, this is the story of a man possessed by two selves; the upright humanitarian Dr. Jekyll and the heartless monster Mr. Hyde.

A prosecutor, Gabriel Utterson, has begun looking into Mr. Hyde’s behavior, after he tramples a little girl in the street. He learns that Dr. Jekyll has left everything to Mr. Hyde in his will. What’s that about? And why has the vicious Mr. Hyde seen entering Dr. Jekyll’s home?


As murder stalks the streets of London, the book turns into a searing psychological portrait of a divided man. Critics believed that Stevenson had created a metaphor for the split nature of Victorian society – clean and upright above, criminally brutal below. You can look up 21st century reviews of this 19th century book and find many with five stars. I’m putting it on my read-again list.

finalproblemAnother Scotsman who had an enormous impact on world literature was Arthur Conan Doyle, and he created one of the great frenemy pairs of modern literature, Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty.  Holmes and Moriarty are arch enemies – Holmes on the side of good, Moriarty a criminal mastermind (Holmes called him “The Napoleon of Crime” for his ability to manipulate England’s entire criminal element). But they have a lot in common, notably their brilliance. Moriarty is mentioned in numerous Holmes stories – his star performance is in The Adventure of the Final Problem, the thrilling story where Holmes and Moriarty do battle at the top of Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls.

moriartyOne variation on the Holmes- Moriarty theme is the contemporary novel Moriarty by English writer Anthony Horowitz. Horowitz, a very clever writer who created the smash television series “Foyle’s War,” writes about an American private detective and a detective inspector from Scotland Yard, both trying to identify a body found in a brook fed by the Reichenbach Falls. Could it be Moriarty? There’s a shocking twist embedded in this plot, and the book is a moody, dark evocation of Victorian England.

A truth-is stranger-than-fiction variation on masters-of-mysterythe frenemies theme is a nonfiction book about Conan Doyle and the great illusionist Harry Houdini. Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle by Christopher Sanford tells the story of two nineteenth century celebrities who started out admiring each other, and ended up falling out bitterly over the subject of spiritualism.Houdini was a rough and tumble American immigrant; Conan Doyle was a British gentleman. They carried on a friendship for decades, but then they became bitterly opposed over the question of whether spirits from the afterlife can communicate with the living.

Conan Doyle, who had lost both a son and a brother in World War I, came to believe in psychics and their ability to summon spirits. Houdini, a master illusionist, believed that he knew every trick up the psychics’ sleeves, and spent much of his career debunking séances. This is a fascinating book about two larger than life figures, brilliant men who finally could not reconcile their beliefs.

tinkerFinally, the great spy novelist John le Carre has created at least a couple of classic frenemies. In “A Perfect Spy,” English spy Magnus Pym is seduced into spying for the Soviets by Axel, who meets Magnus as a young man and who knows precisely how to recruit him. But the title of Grandest of Frenemies has to belong to English spy George Smiley and his archrival Karla, a shadowy figure in the Soviet Union spy apparatus. Karla spends his life studying George, and vice versa – the titanic battle between the two plays out in Tinker, Taylor, Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People, two of my favorite books of all time.

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