Rankin is considered one of Scotland’s most prominent crime/thriller authors. But does his first ever novel, Knots and Crosses , book one of the Inspector Rebus series, still make for a compelling read in 2015? Emily investigates.
There be spoilers here, for a novel first printed in 1987.
When I was about half-way through the novel, I mentioned it for a crime novel themed Hex recommends , but since then I’ve had a chance to finish reading it completely (while crammed into a table seat on the way back from London last week, to be specific). And I still stand by the opening half of the novel and its ability to conjure up this nightmarish vision of Edinburgh that is far removed from what the city was traditionally portrayed as up to that point.
And I’m still equally impressed with the manner and number of ways that Rankin managed to portray John Rebus, a detective sergeant, as a man of much depth and many personal issues. I’m just not sure if this element of the character reads well today and whether the crime that mainly features in the novel isn’t a bit too predictable when you’re coming out of this side of the US crime show post 00s glut.
Too switched off
Rebus is a likeable character, you want him to have a better life and to not be so damned by his past. But he is disappointingly stupid in this first novel. I understand why Rankin used the plot device of having Rebus blacked out on a bunch of past events, because they were supposedly too horrific for his conscious mind to let him remember: that part is fine. What is too implausible, and makes it really difficult to suspend your disbelief, is how Rebus doesn’t make a link between the crank letters he’s getting and the brutal child murders happening in Edinburgh that he’s helping to investigate.
It’s just so late when Rebus makes the connection for himself or supporting characters do that we, the reader, have guessed the connection early on and have spent about three quarters of the novel waiting for the penny to drop for the novel’s characters. I’m unsure if this problem is one that’s more noticeable for younger readers reading Knots and Crosses in the context of today, with a far greater knowledge of psychological profiling and crime procedurals being out there in the public imagination, but the way Rebus is switched off to linking things under his own steam really frustrated me.
Still worth reading today?
This was Ian Rankin’s first novel, so I never had my expectations too high, but it can be a frustrating read for the reasons mentioned above. However, as this is the first novel in a series spanning more than fifteen novels and shows a formative part in the life of John Rebus as a character: then if you want to read the series then you should certainly start here. At least it’s a short crime novel, so you won’t be squirming in frustration for too long.
Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin was first published in 1987 and today is available in both physical and digital formats. Our writer bought her own copy of the novel.