Book Review of Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin

Originally published in 1987, Knots and Crosses was the first of the Rebus novels. These currently stand at 22 (plus short stories) with another book due out this autumn (2018). Rankin made a brief effort to retire Rebus (literally and metaphorically) in Exit Music, which was book 17 and subsequent novels have contained hints that Rebus himself may yet be taken out of action in some way (certainly there’s a limit to how long Rebus can realistically be an active police officer and, indeed a limit to how long he can actually live, so if Ian Rankin keeps ageing the character as you would expect in real life, then one way or another he’s going to have to take his final bow at some point). Knots & Crosses, however, is where it all began with Detective Sergeant John Rebus battling a real-life serial killer and his own mental demons, with the help of whisky and music.


The main character in this novel is Rebus himself. In this first outing, he is 41 and has been 15 years in the force, having previously been in the army. At this point, he is essentially a reworking of the archetypal socially-difficult-but-brilliant detective seen so often in literature from Sherlock Holmes to Jack Frost, complete with divorce and a fondness for cigarettes and alcohol. Although he’s already showing his famous disregard for authority, he’s yet to turn into the massive, disruptive force he becomes later. His self-destructive tendencies are already in evidence and throughout the main part of the novel there are references to a nervous breakdown he had after leaving the army and to his still experiencing flashbacks to his time in the SAS.

Knots & Crosses also introduces Gill Templar, who plays a major role in some later novels (before quietly vanishing) along with Rebus’ brother Michael, CID colleague Jack Morton and crime journalist Jim Stevens, all of whom go on to play roles of varying degrees of importance in later stories. His (ex) wife Rhona puts in a few, short appearances and his daughter Samantha, aged 11, gets a bit more page time, although neither are really developed at this stage in the series.
Rebus’ most famous sidekick, Siobhan Clarke and his (in)famous nemesis, Morris Gerald, Big Ger, Cafferty are both absent from this story. They make their first appearance in the fifth novel, The Black Book.


Although Rebus is most closely associated with Edinburgh, which is the key location for Knots & Crosses, the book actually opens in the Kingdom of Fife and also features flashbacks to Rebus’ training with the SAS, who are based in Herefordshire. Various Edinburgh pubs are mentioned but the Oxford Bar (the Ox), is yet to become a fixture.


One by one, four Edinburgh schoolgirls are abducted and strangled. There is nothing to connect them other than rough age and the fact that they all liked netball, music and reading. There are no witnesses to the killing and no forensics, but the method of killing (and the efficiency) both point to someone with army training. Rebus’ frustration at being stuck on Scotland’s worst case is compounded by a combination of crank letters and personal problems including his (lack of) relationship with his brother Michael, his attempts to find a girlfriend and his issues with the way his ex wife is bringing up their daughter. The emotion of the case exacerbates his existing mental-health issues to the point where he suffers a breakdown which lands him in hospital, but while his body is exhausted, his mind is active and he becomes convinced that he holds the key to the case somewhere within his mind and so agrees to undergo hypnosis in an attempt to uncover the crucial memory - and stop any more murders.

Overall impression

This first book in the Rebus series is essentially a riff on a detective staple, but that’s arguably a smart move from a first-time author (especially one as young as Ian Rankin was when he wrote this) and it leaves Rankin free to focus his creative energies on what he’s become known for, descriptions of Scotland in general and Edinburgh in particular. Rankin takes us from the dingier parts of Fife, through to Edinburgh’s tourist centre and on to “dirty Leith”, which is undergoing a process of gentrification (some of it at any rate). Speaking as someone who lives in this part of Fife and works in Edinburgh, what really got me about Knots & Crosses was how little has changed in the last 30 years since the book was published. Leith is still an “up-and-coming” area with a mixture of professional flats and leisure facilities and parts where you just don’t go.
In short

Although Knots & Crosses is essentially a straightforward “police procedural” and frankly, for the most part, the characters are archetypes, if not outright stereotypes, the writing is strong enough to keep you engaged even when you know the ending. It’s not Rankin’s best, but it’s way above the average detective potboiler.

Verdict - For me this is one to keep.

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