Saturday, February 27, 2016

Review: Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin (Inspector Rebus series, book 1) (SPOILERS)

Knots and Crosses is the first book in crime novelist Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series. First published in 1987, the series chronicles Detective-Sergeant (later, Detective-Inspector) John Rebus as he tries to unravel a variety of crimes in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In Knots and Crosses, the city of Edinburgh is rocked by the abductions and murders of several young girls. The police struggle to find the culprit with next to no clues available and pacify a public that is increasingly screaming for a resolution. Enter John Rebus of the Lothian and Borders Police (which was eventually replaced by Police Scotland in 2013), a man with a haunted past, a broken marriage, and habits that are anything but healthy.

I haven't read much crime fiction, so I don't know how uncommon this is, but what I thought was interesting is that unlike Kurt Wallander, Rebus isn't a high ranking or even a standout police officer. In Knots and Crosses, he's assigned to assist in the investigation of the murders, but is largely relegated to doing door-to-door interviews of potential witnesses and later, to answering phones and going through police files. He's not at the end of the investigation and is just part of the investigative process and I like the realism of it. Typically, if you watch cop shows on TV like Law & Order: SVU or what have you, the detectives on those shows are always out front in the investigation and the actual grunt work by the crime scene investigators, the uniformed police, and other detectives (i.e. not the main characters) are only given token acknowledge and even then, only if it progresses the plot. In Knots and Crosses, however, Rebus's place is firmly set during a staff meeting early in the book. Rebus and the other Detective-Sergeants are seated at the back of the room while the inspectors are at the front. The former are assigned the grunt work and the latter handle the major parts of the investigation.

But let's talk about John Rebus for a moment, because I feel like he's going to become my favorite detective or at the very least, fight it out with Kurt Wallander for the top spot. One of the reasons why I like Rebus is that he isn't a stereotypical great detective. His boss even points out that Rebus is a good cop. Not very good, just good. This is illustrated by the fact that he had been receiving clues from the killer the entire book, but never realized it, instead writing them off as coming from a crank. Even Rebus admonishes himself for not making the connection. Why does this make me like him? Because it's realistic. In real life, detectives will overlook clues and not make connections between one thing and another until later on and it all clicks. Maybe it's just me, but having an amazing detective who can solve the crime on their own is 'meh' to me.

Rebus is also imperfect. He struggles with PTSD throughout the novel and at one point even ends up in the hospital after a psychological break. His condition can be traced back to his time in the army and the SAS, which ended with a breakdown, his discharge and his current job with the Scottish police after his recovery. While it's referenced throughout the novel, we don't find out what caused the breakdown until the last part of the book and it's startling relation to the main plot. Basically, Rebus joined British Army to escape his life and family, before applying for the Special Air Service. Completing that, he and his friend Gordon Reeve were selected for training for an elite unit within the SAS aimed at fighting the IRA in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Unfortunately, the training involved the two being taken "prisoner" and tortured until they break. Rebus survives the ordeal, but suffers a breakdown almost immediately afterwards. Reeve's breakdown is triggered when Rebus abandons him at the end.

And this shared ordeal is directly connected to the main plot because the serial killer turns out to be...Reeve. The whole thing turns out to be Reeve's revenge against Rebus for abandoning him all those years ago. This is where things get a bit over the top. Thanks to an English professor, Rebus and the police discover that the first letter of each victim's first and last name spells out a single name - Samantha, John Rebus's daughter and Reeve's next target. Yup, this whack-a-doodle went around, kidnapping and murdering girls just so he could spell out Samantha. It's a bit out there, but it doesn't wreck the story.

Going back to characters, the biggest and most dominating is Edinburgh itself. Here, you have two cities occupying the same space (but not like China Mieville's The City & The City). On one side, you have the city that tourists journey to: the castles, monuments, and everything else that attracts tourists. On the other side, you have the Edinburgh that tourists don't see or go to. This is the city of crime, death, of bars off the beaten path, drugs, brothels, and all that stuff that makes crime fiction so great. This is the world that John Rebus lives in and Knots and Crosses makes you question whether the two Edinburghs are the two sides of the same coin or worlds apart.

The one character I didn't care for is Jim Stevens, a reporter who dogs Rebus in the novel. Stevens discovers that Michael, John's brother is connected to the Edinburgh drug trade and automatically assumes that Rebus is involved, so spends the novel almost like a conspiracy theorist trying to make a connection that doesn't exist. This doggedness got on my nerves to the point that I was hoping that Stevens was the killer.

In the end, Knots and Crosses is a good start to what is (from what I hear) a great crime series and I can't wait to read the rest of the books.

Overall, I would give Knots and Crosses a solid 9/10. I highly recommend this book whether you're a fan of crime fiction or just getting into it.

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