Knots and Crosses (Rebus 1) by Ian Rankin

A study in psyche…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Three young girls have been abducted from the streets of Edinburgh, and Detective Sergeant John Rebus has been assigned to the team investigating the disappearances. Soon the discovery of the bodies of the girls makes the case even more serious, and the race is on to find the killer before any more girls go missing

This is the first book in what became the long-running Rebus series, and it is very different in style from the way the series developed later. Apparently Rankin hadn’t originally intended it to become a series – he wrote this as a one-off, as an examination of a damaged man, suffering from PTSD following his experiences in the SAS.

I’m very glad that I didn’t originally read this series in order because, to be honest, had I read this book first I doubt very much whether I would have gone on to read any of the others. (Thus confirming my general belief that the first book in any series is often the weakest, and it’s often better to jump in around the third or fourth and then work backwards.) The quality of the writing is already here – Rankin could already evoke Edinburgh in all its contrasts of wealth and poverty, the powerful and the marginalised. But the story, as a crime story, is well nigh non-existent. The missing girls are so forgotten about that I still couldn’t tell you any of their names. There is almost no detection, on the page at least, and we spend far more time learning about Rebus’ psychological problems than about either the victims or the perpetrator.

And while it’s an interesting thought to see how a man suffering from the effects of PTSD would have difficulty coping in the police, I’m afraid the implausibility of the reasons for Rebus’ problems made it impossible for me to fully buy in to the premise. Having read many of the later books, I’ve always been aware that Rebus had served in the SAS at an earlier point in his life, but here in the first book we learn that in fact he was so traumatised during the training that he never made it through. In itself this is hard enough to accept since, although the SAS has the reputation of being only for the toughest of the tough, I can’t believe that they would put new recruits through the kind of extreme experiences to which we are expected to believe Rebus was subjected, and send them back into civvy street as broken men.

But what I found even more unbelievable is that the police would employ someone so badly damaged. Because he is very badly damaged, to the point of frequently collapsing, losing awareness of where he is, losing consciousness, becoming violent, etc. And it’s certainly not due to the stress of his current job, since he doesn’t really appear to do anything very much.

The other thing that surprised me is that Rebus is shown here as a man of faith, battling to reconcile his belief in an all-powerful, loving God with the horrors he sees happening daily in the world around him. It’s interestingly done, with that distinctive Scottish flavour of ambivalence towards the whole subject of religion, but again feels very different to the cynical Rebus who develops in the later books.

This whole concentration on Rebus’ psyche goes on for far too long. The story of the abductions is really packed into the last few chapters, by which point I had pretty much forgotten all about the dead girls. I was also disappointed that Rankin fell back on the old clichés of the motivation of the killer arising out of personal animosity for the detective, together with a side story involving Rebus’ brother. However, in these final chapters we see the beginnings of the more traditional style of noir-ish police procedural that Rankin would develop in future books and, throughout, his skill in invoking atmosphere and excellence in characterisation are already clear. Although the Edinburgh setting is already well developed, there isn’t the focus on specifically Scottish society and culture that would become a major feature down the line.

Ian Rankin

So, all in all, my recommendation to newcomers would be to come in a few books further on, when Rankin had begun to focus more on the crime aspects and had allowed Rebus to become rather more functional! For existing fans this one is interesting to see how it all began, but with the proviso that the Rebus of this book has become a very different man by the time Rankin fully hits his stride. I’ll be interested to see over the next few books if that transformation is done by a process of slow evolution, or if Rankin merely threw out the bits of Rebus’ original character that didn’t work so well once he had decided to use him as the lead in a long-running series.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by James Macpherson, who has narrated all of the Rebus books and does a fine job with them.

Audible UK Link

21 thoughts on “Knots and Crosses (Rebus 1) by Ian Rankin

    • Yes, occasionally an author starts off with a bang, but usually they take a couple of books to get into their stride. I’m glad Rebus had recovered a bit before I got to know him! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s interesting how some series get better and better (I felt that way about the Cadfael series) and some weaken. I’ve read many trilogies where the first book was great and the other two got worse and worse. In those cases, the author spent years writing the first book and only had months to write subsequent books. Also, in those cases, it was evident that the author hadn’t exactly planned how the trilogy would end. But maybe in a series like this where you know you have room to keep exploring the cast of characters, you have room to grow in depth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting – I always dipped in and out of Cadfael randomly so wasn’t aware of that but I’ve been thinking about revisiting them, so I’ll bear that in mind. Yes, some series definitely go in the other direction too. In fact I usually find the middle books the best, even with favourites like Reginald Hill – every author seems to hit a sweet spot but they usually can’t maintain it for ever. On the whole I’d rather have a series or trilogy that started out badly and got better over time than one that started brilliantly and got worse!


  2. You’re so right, FictionFan, that a series sometimes doesn’t hit its stride right away. And yes, the unbelievability factor crops up here, and for me, anyway, that makes it hard to stay engaged in a story. Well, as you say, there’s the writing style, and I’ve very much liked seeing how the stories evolved, Rankin’s talent showed itself, and Rebus developed as a character.

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    • Yes, quite often first books have to do so much introducing of characters that the author kind of loses the plot – literally! This one seemed even worse because he wasn’t even really trying to write a proper mystery novel. I wonder why he didn’t just create a new character when he decided to write a series. Still, it all worked out in the end!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Although I try to always start at the beginning, I agree that it sometimes takes a book or two for a series to establish itself. In the past I never minded giving the second (or even third) book a chance, but these days I’m not always inclined to do that. Maybe I’m just getting old and impatient, or maybe I just have too many other books I want to read. Should I try this series, I’ll take your advice and not start here.

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    • I think it’s too many books – I’m always reluctant these days to give an author a second chance too, but I used to be willing to read at least three in a series before I gave up, unless I really hated them. I’ve gone back to the start of a few loved series recently and each time thought that if I’d read the first book first I might never have read another.

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    • I know – he was nearly unrecognisable! I kind of wish I hadn’t read it since I didn’t like this version of Rebus at all, but happily with my memory I’ll have forgotten it soon… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lots of food for thought here, FF. As a writer, I know how hard it can be to get that debut novel written…and published. One tries to make it the best story possible, but yes, characters do change over the course of a series, and you as a writer should, too. Hopefully, your writing broadens and your stories become more interesting. I’m glad to hear Rankin’s series has done just that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think the first book often has to have a lot of introduction and back story and that can make them a bit dull, whereas in later books the focus can be more on the plot. I suspect most good writers develop as a result of feedback too, so the first novel and the readers’ response to it is probably a huge learning experience…

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  5. So interesting to go backwards! As you may know, I began at the beginning, and I liked the first one well enough to continue. But you’re right, it was the weakest one of the bunch so far for me. I found this to be true with the Harry Bosch series as well. I probably should do what you do, and start with the 3rd or 4th, but I’m such a stickler for series order! it’s part of my reading personality, ha ha! I do tend to give the first in a series a lot of leeway.

    Liked by 2 people

    • If you’ve got the patience to give the second and third book a chance then starting at the beginning makes sense. I’m too impatient – if the first book doesn’t grab me I’m unlikely to stick with the series – like the Three Pines books, or Cormoran Strike. Maybe if I’d jumped in at book three of both those series I’d have loved them!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve found with a lot of series that I’ve never continued beyond book 1, even though people have told me the series improves – the Three Pines books, the Vera books, etc. So I should follow my own advice and stop reading first books first!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I am in two minds about starting a series from the beginning or two or three books down the line. Both Martha Grimes and Colin Dexter disappointed me so much in the first outing of Richard Jury and Inspector Morse that I have never felt like picking them again. On the other hand, Reginald Hill’s first one is such a winner and the second one too is good. Caroline Graham’s first book was good but the second one, a dud. So I guess, there cannot be any hard or fast rule about it. Depends upon your luck which book you pick up first😃

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, some writers definitely start off with a bang while others take a book or two to warm up. But if I start further down the line I’m always happy to backtrack to the earlier books. That’s what happened for me with Reginald Hill – I think I jumped in around book 6 and then gradually worked backwards.


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