Review: Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin

Knots and CrossesThis October will see the release of Even Dogs in the Wild, the 20th John Rebus novel. To celebrate, this week I re-read the first book in the series, Knots and Crosses, which I first read in High School, about twelve years ago now. And while it doesn’t have the depth, or the deftness, of the later Rebus novels, Rankin’s talent is there for all to see. Knots and Crosses is unrefined, but still taut, and a true page-turner.

A series of killings of young girls has Edinburgh reeling. John Rebus, an ex-SAS trooper, now police detective, is one of many investigators on the case, doggedly chasing up leads, but demonstrating an unfathomable lack of foresight as he ignores the most obvious of clues. Not that Rebus is cognizant of his failings; this is a man who is deeply scarred by his training, having suffered a nervous breakdown as a result, then a divorce. Rebus isn’t the unshakable crime-fighter we’re accustomed to; he’s cursedly human. He buries bad memories, drinks too much, and displays an over-reliance on sarcasm to shroud his true feelings. In other words, he’s just like us, only he carries a badge, enabling his mission for justice.

Unfortunately for Rebus, these murders have a personal connection, and bringing an end to Edinburgh’s terror will require delving into those long-repressed memories with the help of his brother, who has a sordid past of his own. And all the while there’s a reporter circling, looking to unleash his own brand hell on the Rebus’.

Knots and Crosses demonstrates Rankin’s storytelling finesse. This is a wonderfully spun mystery, with evocative snapshots into Rebus’s past, laying the foundation for the series that will soon eclipse twenty novels. Rankin’s prose is distinct; while I have a penchant for Chandler-esque writing, Rankin’s is a tad more ostentatious, but it works. He’s more of a stylist than the likes of Connelly or Child, two of my favourite crime writers, and it’s fascinating purely from a craftsmanship perspective how his tone has developed during his career.

A very fine debut for Inspector John Rebus, Knots and Crosses is a novel that impressed second time round. My only lingering regret is that October is a long way off. Why’d I remind myself of how good Rankin is? I might dig into his backlist a few more times before Even Dogs in the Wild.

Review: Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

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The tagline emblazoned on the cover of the twentieth John Rebus novel reads REBUS: SAINT OR SINNER? – but longtime readers will know Rebus is far more enigmatic than that. Still, the discrepancy between those two extremes has never been of greater focus than in SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE, where Ian Rankin explores Rebus’s past, allowing us a glimpse of a time before KNOTS AND CROSSES, when the rules and regulations of police work were lenient and, occasionally, wafted towards entirely unethical.

In his early years Rebus worked with a clan of officers in Summerhall police station who named themselves The Saints of the Shadow Bible. Rankin never deliberately labels them as good or bad – life is not as simple as black and white, after all – and presents them simply as cops doing the job the way they saw fit, bending – and occasionally breaking – the rules when they deemed pertinent. But years later, in the present day, a year before the Scottish independence referendum, the Solicitor General has order an investigation into a case The Saints were involved in – and Rebus find himself assessing the methodologies and mindset he too was guilty of back then, all the while handling a case featuring the daughter of a devious London-based businessman and the son of the Scottish Justice Minister (who also so happens to be the head of the ‘Yes to Independence’ campaign.

Rankin weaves an enthralling narrative as always, seamlessly shifting from one case to the other. He has accumulated quite the cast now – Malcolm Fox and Siobhan Clarke and Rebus all take center stage at various points in the story – and it’s fascinating reading Rebus interact with his ex-protege Clarke in her new role as his superior, and with Fox, who he’s never had anything but unpleasant interactions with. There’s an underlining respect the two of them; whether that has the potential to blossom into a genuine friendship seems unlikely.

Before his first retirement, Rebus was never anything but effectively archaic. Out of retirement – albeit with the axe still looming over his head (his age means his return to the force will be only a brief reprieve from civilian life) – Rebus has lost some of his panache. He’s not a young man anymore; he can’t spar with villains, and can’t keep up with the monumental technological strides. But he’s as deeply compelling as always; a man I wouldn’t want to call my friend, but would always want on my side.