Knots and Crosses

Posted: August 3, 2014 in Book reviews

By Ian Rankin.

The city of Edinburgh has been rocked by the murder of two young girls, both strangled. Local reporter Jim Stevenson, however, is more interested in the nefarious activities of Michael Rebus, a stage hypnotist, who he believes is involved in funnelling drugs into the city. Michael’s brother, John Rebus, is a Detective Sergeant assigned to work the strangler case.

John Rebus is a broken man, estranged from his wife and daughter he drinks too much and is still haunted by his past in the military. He’s also just begun to receive anonymous letters containing little figures made out of string. As the net tightens on the strangler, it becomes apparent that Rebus might be more involved than is first thought.

This is only the second Rebus novel I’ve ever read. It’s also the very first Rebus novel, thankfully his publisher has started putting numbers on the latest printings, which is always a help (I wish more publishers would do that—yes you can go by publishing dates inside but this is easier.)

There are a lot of flaws with this novel, but that is to be expected given it’s Rankin’s first book, and in fact in the edition I read he highlights many of them in his foreword. There’s indications of a writer who thinks he’s cleverer than he actually (at this point in his career) is, and as he himself states, he really overdoes the Jekyll and Hyde/Deacon Brodie references.

As characters go, Rebus isn’t the most original; a detective with a drink problem and a broken marriage, a man who was in the SAS, many of these things are clichéd in the world of crime fiction, although in fairness his father being a stage hypnotist is a bit of a twist.

The central mystery is not a great one, and the book will, I imagine, feel very different from the other Rebus books, given that here he’s only nominally the main character. Rankin clearly didn’t write the book expecting to create a recurring character, and in fact Rebus himself is a potential suspect in the murders. The central mystery hovers around in the background for much of the book, as Rebus himself hovers around the periphery of the case, just one of dozens of officers assigned to the investigation. As a result the middle section of the book does seem to meander a little, but once things kick into gear the story really takes off. Suddenly things become more personal for Rebus, and the clock is definitely ticking as he races to save the next potential victim.

As a fan of the likes of Lawrence Block (who I know Rankin is a fan of as well) I like a hardboiled detective story done well, and if Rebus’s background seems unoriginal, in Rankin’s words he becomes more than the sum of his parts, a real, flawed human being and an interesting character, and he’s aided by having Edinburgh as a backdrop, a beautiful city with a dark past and a murky underbelly, and I’m looking forward to finding book 2 and seeing Rebus more centrally the hero, and hopefully a better mystery.

An interesting rather than a great read, but one that shows clears signs of the potential to come and one that’s certainly got me wanting to read more about John Rebus.

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