Book Review: Ian Rankin – Knots & Crosses (Inspector Rebus book 1)

  • Originally posted on September 5, 2019

For a long time now, my reading has stagnated. I’m someone who loves a good series to get into, in a way that people enjoy watching TV series. One book is not enough for characters; their lives need to be laid out to me, discovering themselves as we do, as events take control and change them forever. And while plunging into a series with twenty-three books to date may not be the most sensible thing for any university student to do (although, I have been told on good authority that this is very few compared to what English Lit students read), but then again I am slightly on the wild side.

Indeed, one book was all it was to be for Inspector Rebus. As revealed in the introduction written by Ian Rankin himself, he was supposed to die at the end, at least in the drafts; indeed, the way that the ending is written for him leaves it open to interpretation. At least, until 1991, when a sequel was added to ‘Knots and Crosses’.

Typically with novels, I tend to lean towards seeing plot as the most important thing. Is it exciting? Are there lots of twists? Are we guessing continuously? If I was rating this book based on this criteria, it would have a solid mark, but not an amazing one. Indeed, certain plot devices like hypnosis and bringing a crucial character in in the last third of the book tend to frustrate me. But the plot isn’t the biggest thing in this book.

You have to remember, that I don’t believe Rebus was the main character in the novel. Indeed, it is the aforementioned late arrival which takes centre stage, and has been all along. Every part of the book, almost every part of Rebus’ life, is because of this villainous silhouette. It is about the murder of four young girls, about the cat-and-mouse game which is being played, hiding in plain sight. The intricate planning and suspense more than makes up for the relative lack of action.

The writing is a pleasure to read. My only real experience of gritty Scottish fiction was ‘Trainspotting’. I’m still proud of being able to understand every word in that book. The way Rankin uses Edinburgh’s history, it’s culture and it’s hidden world, both physical and not, to set every scene with imagery, really is wonderful. No word has been written without a meaning.

Character development is another very interesting point. Keeping in mind that this was meant to be only a solo effort, we learn enough about the characters without being forced into listening to a detailed biography which overtakes the actual story. But it’s not the bog-standard “she has blue eyes and amazing features” which often emerges (although the leering and the sexual frankness of the writing adds an edge which is rarely present in 2000s fiction). We don’t know much about Gill Templer, for example, but we know that she wears her glasses as a way to shield herself from the world, even though she doesn’t need to wear them. Enough is given to provide use to the case, and since there is a long series ahead, more than enough is held back to add to the stories of the future.

I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to discover Rebus, but I’m glad I only have now. Until nearly all of my ongoing series arrive with new paperback editions in 2020, I have plenty of material to keep me busy. Just a tip for anyone wanting to get involved in this series: you can buy ‘Knots and Crosses’ for less than £2, and on eBay there are sellers providing the first nine stories for under £20. It’s more than worth it.

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