Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin Review

Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin, a labyrinthine tale of Edinburgh cops tracking a vicious serial killer who preys on young girls with a plot that smolders but never quite catches fire.

Knots and Crosses Synopsis

Inspector Rebus #1

Detective John Rebus: His city is being terrorized by a baffling series of murders…and he’s tied to a maniac by an invisible knot of blood. Once John Rebus served in Britain’s elite SAS. Now he’s an Edinburgh cop who hides from his memories, misses promotions and ignores a series of crank letters. But as the ghoulish killings mount and the tabloid headlines scream, Rebus cannot stop the feverish shrieks from within his own mind. Because he isn’t just one cop trying to catch a killer, he’s the man who’s got all the pieces to the puzzle…

St. Martin’s Minotaur, 1987

Genre(s) Mystery & Detective, International Crime

Ian Rankin | Pub Date 1987 (First) | ISBN 9780312536923 | 228 pages

Book Review

Knots and Crosses is the brooding 1987 debut police thriller by Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin, introducing his Detective Inspector John Rebus character, a hard drinking Scottish detective with a troubled past, and launching the series that made Rankin famous. It’s a labyrinthine tale of Edinburgh cops tracking a vicious serial killer who preys on young girls. The plot smolders but never quite catches fire. Yet the quality of the writing in this nearly thirty-six-year-old novel, written while Rankin was a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, illustrates why Rankin is one of the top crime writers in the business today. He shows off his encyclopedic knowledge of Edinburgh and its surrounds, the setting of most of the Rebus novels, and he expertly details the painstaking investigation procedures used by Edinburgh detectives trying to catch a killer with the technology of the times. I’m late to the party with Rankin and his Rebus series, surprising since I read as much international crime as I do the domestic variety. So, after an opportunity to read and review A Heart Full of Headstones (2022), the most recent book in the series, I enjoyed it so much that I knew I had to go back to the genesis of John Rebus and read the entire series. In this first book, Rebus, a detective sergeant, is already something of a black sheep among his colleagues for his loner ways. He’s divorced with a young daughter and has a morose persona thanks mostly to his haunted past while in the Special Air Squadron (SAS), a time of his life, Rebus is loath to speak about to anyone. In A Heart Full of Headstones, it mentions the nervous breakdown Rebus suffered because of traumatic experiences during SAS training and that made me curious to learn the full story, another motivation for reading this novel. And that story is fully presented, which aids us in our understanding of the Rebus character and why he became the man he did. A major plot point in this story is the killer delivers notes to Rebus containing clues to the killer’s identity and motives, yet because of the past trauma, Rebus involuntarily suppresses his memories of the traumatic events so completely that he’s unable to comprehend the meaning behind the clues and that the killings all link to Rebus in a deeply personal way. While I’m no expert on the effects of extreme emotional and mental trauma, that seems to stretch credibility a bit too much for my liking. Before an event occurs that frees Rebus to recall things from his past that finally enables him to understand the clues that point him to the killer, the suspect raises the stakes by making things even more personal for Rebus, pushing the detective almost to the breaking point. Once we arrive at the expected but all too brief climax in a forgotten tunnel beneath the city, we learn the identity of the not-so-surprising villain. There are subplots aplenty in the book, such as the stories behind some intimate relationships involving Rebus, and a tangled situation involving his brother, Michael. And Rankin pulls all these threads together for us by the end. There is much to like about Knots and Crosses despite the plot weaknesses and the book is well worth reading if only for someone new to the series to learn the essentials of the genesis of Detective Inspector Rebus.

Book rating: ★★★★

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