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by John Q McDonald --- 2 May 2019

Knots & Crosses

An Inspector Rebus Novel

by Ian Rankin

The city of Edinburgh, Scotland is elegant, picturesque, and has a long history of enlightenment education and values, not to mention certain devoted puppies. It's a genteel picture, and certainly appealing to tourists (including yours truly). But, like any large city, it has its underside of crime, poverty and grit. Back in 1985, when this novel was first conceived, it was even more so. In the intervening decades, like most large cities, it has experienced a certain amount of gentrification and refinement. The underside still exists, of course, altered in its own ways, pushed to the edges, drug preferences evolved. But, here, back in 1985 or so, we are engaged with Detective Sargeant John Rebus of the Edinburgh constabulary. He is a troubled man, with shades of PTSD from his time in the British special forces. But his military training helped him to be a good cop. When we're introduced to him, we can't help but percieve a kind of darkness floating around him, hints of alcoholism, certainly too much smoking, and a bit of self-flagellating Christianity.

And so, it is with DS Rebus that we investigate a series of disturbing murders of young girls in Edinburgh. Rankin takes an unsual tack in bringing Rebus in as a late-comer to the investigatory team, and not as its leader. He doesn't know everything that is going on in the investigation. Things happen in his everyday experience as a cop that he doesn't at first detect are connected to the murders. We engage in the uncertainty of Rebus's life and work. Along the way, we meet his brother Michael, a beer-hall hypnotist. Rebus has an ex-wife and a precocious daughter. He has a couple of women interested him. Most of all, he has a bleak history that lurks in the corners of his mind, facts that he hesitates to deal with and which ultimately may turn the course of his life.

This is the first in a long series of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels. As of this writing there are twenty-three of them, along with a fair stack of short stories. But, this one comes with an introduction by the author in which he acknowledges that at the time he did not expect Rebus to become such a popular and enduring character (appearing also on a short-lived television series, though don't expect the episode with this title to too closely follow the book). Rankin lists some of the flaws in his book and in its star character. For one, his procedure isn't too developed and this reader wondered what happened to the relatives of the victims. But Rankin protests too much. The book itself is dark but tightly written (perhaps less so during a long hypnotic flashback). His character is flawed, but that's his nature. We'll see him mature in future books, no doubt, and Rankin clearly has things to say. Edinburgh is not depicted as a tourist destination, and the tourists get in the way from time to time, but it is a lively city and complicatedly drawn. Worth a visit.

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