Rankin, Ian. Knots and Crosses.

Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1987.

Rankin had published a number of well-received short stories in British magazines, but his was his first novel, and also the first appearance of John Rebus, then a detective sergeant on the Edinburgh police force and a man with too much history to carry around comfortably.

He spent some time in the military before becoming a copper and he was good at it — but then he made the mistake of volunteering for the SAS, a practically paramilitary outfit used in black ops and to combat terrorists (i.e., the Irish), with little connection to the “real” army. And they tested him beyond the breaking point. And he broke. He’s buried those memories deep but they still come back to haunt him at unexpected moments.

Rebus has accumulated some commendations in his present job, too, but he has a tendency to shoot his mouth off in the presence of his superiors, so promotions have been slow in coming. He also has an ex-wife (no prize by the sound of it) and a twelve-year-old daughter whom he doesn’t see enough of. And there’s a DI liaison officer he’s beginning to develop a relationship with. And he has another relationship, this one with God, that he also doesn’t seem to quite know how to deal with. But at the moment, he and everyone else in the department are struggling with an apparently random serial killer who’s grabbing adolescent girls and strangling them. None of them appear to have any connection to each other, which makes the case really difficult and the newspapers are beating the drum of police helplessness. At a more personal level, Rebus has been receiving peculiar anonymous letters, which he tends to shrug off. But I can’t say much more about the plotline without giving away the great revelation on which the story turns.

Rebus’s brother, Michael, by the way, is a stage entertainer — a hypnotist, the successor to their father, who played clubs and hotels and casinos all over the north of Britain. When I read this, I thought, “Oh, come on!” — but there’s a very particular reason Rankin includes that tidbit, which I also can’t reveal. The style is a bit fraught in places and the tone is almost relentlessly dark, but the characters are multilayered and the plot itself is a grabber. The series changes somewhat as it progresses over the following two decades, but if you want to do it right, you really need to start here.

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Published in: on 21 July 2012 at 2:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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