Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin

“There’s more happening in Edinburgh than anyone knows.”

I don’t know about everyone one else out there, but sometimes I need a complete change of pace in my reading. In 2009, after watching a few films based on Ian Rankin’s series detective Rebus, I finally got around to one of Rankin’s books. I picked up Exit Music–just in time to read about the end of this fictional detective’s career. Exit Music begins with Rebus looking at the 10-day countdown till retirement and then along comes a nasty crime to solve. I enjoyed Exit Music, but at the same time I felt a bit cheated. It was as though I’d just met someone and thought: this is an interesting fellow only to watch him keel over, emigrate or simply disappear. At this point I regretted not trying Rankin a bit earlier.

So this led me to a battered old paperback copy of Knots and Crosses–the first novel in the Rebus series. These first series novels tend to be a bit weaker as they exist in part to provide the foundation for the main character. After the first novel in the series, we readers are supposed to be interested enough to keep on buying and reading the subsequent novels. I suppose as series novels continue they become, in a way, a familiar safe bet for the avid fan. We are already acquainted with the main character (in this case, Rebus), we already know the author’s style and often the setting is the same. It’s probably a bit like going to the same place on holiday every year or ordering the same thing from the restaurant menu.

In Knots and Crosses, Detective Sergeant Rebus isn’t exactly at the beginning of his career. He works in Edinburgh, he’s divorced and has one child. His flat is messy and smelly. His private life is practically non-existent and is composed of occasional drunken one night stands, only blearily remembered the next day. His father has been dead for five years, and Rebus’s relationship with his brother, magician Michael isn’t exactly what you’d call close. When the story begins, it’s just becoming evident that there’s a serial killer on the loose in Edinburgh. Rebus is put to work on the case, alienating his superiors while attempting to build a relationship with an attractive co-worker.

The novel is at its strongest in its depiction of Rebus. He’s firmly established as an interesting, although unappealing character–from his half-hearted attempt to limit his cigarette smoking to the way he cheats and lies to himself about it. Rebus is coming apart at the seams: his mental stability, his personal life, his professional life. The man’s a walking disaster and this is only the first book.

The plot, however, was a bit of a stretch for me. Obviously I can’t say a great deal about the plot without giving away too much of the mystery. After all, there may be another human being on the planet who hasn’t read this novel yet but who still intends to. For me, the plot was a little too fantastic–a little too Professor Moriarty for my tastes. On top of that, the crime finale was a little too Hollywood Hype for my tastes.

Will I try another one? Yes. I am interested in how Rebus–a man who’s already completely burned out–manages to pull his career out of a nosedive and hold it together long enough to survive until retirement….

4 Comments

Filed under Rankin Ian

4 responses to “Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin

  1. Nick

    Funny… I’ve read the exact same two (in opposite order).

    I really cannot say I’ll go back to it. I think they are much more interesting books than those written by Ian Rankin. The writing compelled me several times to throw his books against the wall. I felt better but just for a short while since I’m a committed reader and I had to pick them up and finish them. It was difficult.

    In my view it’s just not worth the time it takes, and if I want to read something distracting and of quality in the detective genre, there are still a number of Chandler and colleagues’ books I haven’t read.

  2. I’ve read the first seven so far, up to Let it Bleed, of those the weakest were the first and the third, both of which get a tad Hollywood as you say.

    Interestingly, when Rankin wrote the first he toyed with Rebus being the killer, it was relatively late on he decided that he wouldn’t be, he hadn’t then determined he would be a series’ character.

    For me, they’ve steadily improved as I’ve gone on, you can see Rankin learning his craft. The best have been those rooted squarely in Scotland, Mortal Causes I thought particularly good with its portrayal of Scottish sectarianism. Rankin’s a slightly uneven writer, at his weakest when he goes to formula, at hs best when he’s exploring Edinburgh and bringing it to seedy life.

    I own the whole series, so I expect to read more of them. My only concern is that they grow visibly larger as the series goes on, perhaps suggesting a loss of editorial control once he became a major writer, often a problem and rarely one that’s good for the books in question. It wouldn’t surprise me if the middle volumes were the best, but we’ll see.

    Oh, and Rebus himself changes personality as the series goes on. Even with a degree of retconning. He ceases being into jazz and instead, more convincingly, is into 60s rock for example. Another example of Rankin learning how to write, how to make a character that stood on its own feet.

  3. Max:

    I was a bit disappointed in this one, but I will try again later. For some reason, as I read about Rebus, I thought about–and compared him to–Raymond’s nameless detective (I’ve only read the first book in that series too). Rankin’s novel didn’t come off well in the comparison.

    Both detectives have difficulties dealing with authority/their ‘superiors’ and both seem burned-out wrecks. The big difference, I saw was that Rebus didn’t seem all that interested in his job, and in this case, he was a bit sloppy. Raymond’s detective, on the other hand is obsessed to the point that he loses himself in the victim entirely.

    Your description of Rankin’s shift perhaps explains why I preferred Exit Music.

    Ultimately Raymond’s character is far more interesting, and of course, He Died With His Eyes Open is a superior book.

  4. Nick:

    I much preferred Exit Music. Can’t say I’m in a rush to read another (unlike some authors whose books I ration). I have another Maupassant I’m going to get to, but then I think perhaps I should wait and eke this out.

    Anyway, Knots and Crosses was read during a few days when I had a lot of other stuff going on and I needed a distraction but something that grabbed my attention rather than a novel that needed some concentration. One of those so-called ‘beach-reads’ without the beach.

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