Review of “Knots and Crosses” by Ian Rankin

There are some mysteries you read because they are the only things available in the airport gift shop and you are desperate; then there are those that rise above the designation of “airplane book” and are more aptly considered “crime novels.” Ian Rankin’s books fall into the latter category.

I ordered this book from the library because I had won a couple of Ian Rankin books featuring Inspector Rebus, but I do have an obsessive need to start at the beginning of a series. Knots and Crosses is Book One of the Inspector Rebus series. (The series begins with Knots & Crosses published in 1987, and ends with Exit Music published in 2007.) I’m so glad I read this first book; it’s very good, and gives a lot of background on Rebus that one might be glad to have later on in the series. And how can you not feel favorably disposed toward a book with the epigraph “To Miranda, without whom nothing is worth finishing.”

John Rebus is a 41-year-old Detective Sergeant of the Great London Road police station in Edinburgh, Scotland. Formerly, he was one of the elite Special Air Service (a special forces regiment of the British Army) – a sort of Delta Force – but left after some kind of nervous breakdown, the circumstances surrounding which he has repressed. It has haunted his life however, and probably contributed to the break-up of his marriage. He sees his eleven-year-old daughter Samantha periodically, but interaction with her is awkward; in part, it is because she is a teenaged girl with very different interests than his own, and in part, it is because he is a loner, and a troubled man.

Rebus’s character is flawed in most interesting ways. To start with, he smokes and drinks to excess and tends to flout authority, but those traits are almost de rigueur these days for detectives in novels. But he has more unusual eccentricities as well: he has occasional bouts of kleptomania; flashbacks to his SAS training that can cause outbreaks of tears or even misdirected violent behavior; and an obsession with Christian guilt and the possibility of redemption.

As the story begins, someone is strangling little girls about Samantha’s age. The police are working around the clock to catch the killer before he strikes again.

Rebus, putting in very long hours, mulls over the case as he straggles home each night from the station, wondering where the killer might be hiding:

Edinburgh slept on, as it had slept on for hundreds of years. There were ghosts in the cobbled alleys and on the twisting stairways of the Old Town tenements, but they were Enlightenment ghosts, articulate and deferential. They were not about to leap from the darkness with a length of twine ready in their hands.”

I love the depiction of Edinburgh as having Enlightenment ghosts.

Tension builds, and Rankin adds some very clever twists. The question of course is how many girls will die before Rebus and his colleagues can solve the mystery.

Evaluation: I did not anticipate the denouement at all, although I’m generally rather dense anyway when it comes to mysteries. But even had I done so, I still would have enjoyed the journey. This is not a book of “cheap thrills,” but there is sufficient tension and interesting characterization to keep you reading until late at night.

Rankin is the recipient of four Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards including the prestigious Diamond Dagger in 2005. In 2004, he won America’s the Edgar Award for Resurrection Men. He has also been short-listed for the Edgar and Anthony Awards in the USA, and won Denmark’s Palle Rosenkrantz Prize, the French Grand Prix du Roman Noir and the Deutscher Krimipreis.

I found him to be an intelligent writer; I definitely want to continue with the Inspector Rebus series!

Rating: 3.8/5

Ian Rankin

Addendum

What is this genre, anyway? Is it literary fiction or crime fiction? This is an excerpt from an entertaining interview of Rankin that I found conducted by a writer for Deutsche Welle published on 3/18/2010:

I heard that you used to go into bookshops and move your books out of the crime section into the literary section. In Germany, this separation between crime fiction and the rest of literature doesn’t exist. Can you explain the snobbishness about crime fiction in the English speaking world?

Yeah, but it would take me all day to explain it in depth … When crime fiction started in England it was very much seen as being literature. [Charles] Dickens used elements of the crime novel in “Bleak House.” His very good friend Wilkie Collins basically invented the English crime novel with “The Moonstone.”

But then writers started to use amateur detectives, and started to have very outlandish plots, and to have lots of fun with obscure poisons and such. And suddenly it drifted away from the realm of literature.

Crime fiction as a genre grew up with the growth in the lower middle classes, and also with the growth in travel. People were commuting to work on buses and trains; they needed things to read and crime fiction gave them a nice easy read while they were traveling. So there was this distinction.

And that bothered you?

It was a problem for me in the early days, but only because I studied literature at university. I was doing a PhD in literature when I started writing my first Rebus novel. I wasn’t that fond of crime fiction. I just happened to think a detective was a good way of looking at society, and of exploring a city.

So when the first book was published and it went in the crime shelves, I went, “What the hell is this?” and I moved it to the literature section. I wanted it beside the people I was studying – Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Muriel Spark.

But then I started to read crime fiction, and I liked it. (…) Everything I wanted to say about the world, I could say within the crime format. So I thought, “Why the hell not?”

Find the entire interview, conducted by Breandain O’Shea here.

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22 Responses

  1. I think I can understand Rankin’s distress over the genre. Honestly, many crime thrillers have become trash novels, and upsets me too! But when I find a good one, without the predictable, cheesy plots or the over-the-top violence, my heart is warmed. I like my protagonists damaged, I like a twist I cannot predict, and I don’t always like the ending tied up neat with a bow. I’m off to the library website to see what they have!!!!

  2. eeeek! I have his Exit Music in my TBR pile and it appears to be #17 in the Rebus books. Do I have to read the other 16 first?

    Maybe I could read the first and then just skip right to mine… ;-)

  3. Wow…loved this review and now you’ve got me thinking I need to read this book and series!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. I wish I would have started with a Rebus mystery instead of DOORS OPEN. I did enjoy his writing very much though.

  5. Wonderful – a new writer to discover. I love mysteries set in Edinburgh; it just seems like the perfect atmosphere for a murder. As for it rising above an ordinary mystery novel, I love P.D. James for the same reason. I like deep characters with a story about more than solving a murder.

  6. Isn’t it interesting that detectives in fiction are portrayed as SO flawed or damaged? Are detectives in real life like that, too? I wonder. I have never read Rankin but this inspector with the klepto tendencies sounds pretty fascinating!

  7. A need to start at the beginning is not an “obsessive need”, it is an intelligent decision. I absolutely will not read books out of order. I just can’t do it. Even books with fringe characters from another series or episodic books that aren’t interconnected, must be read in proper chronological order.

  8. If you read only one Rankin make it this one. I read some of the others with increasing disappointment, then gave up, but I’m not a fan of the crime genre post-Wilkie Collins. That’s what was so good about KNOTS & CROSSES – it wasn’t a “crime novel”.

    If you want something similar but about Glasgow, try William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw series which some think is even better than the Rebus books, if not so well known. I found his philosophising detective much more interesting than Rebus.

    • I checked out some assessments of McIlvanney and Laidlaw, finding that “Laidlaw is unusually dense and evocative, and the character of Laidlaw is true to life and horrifyingly believable. ” I also was able to read quite a few quotes from the books, and the writing sounds very good. Thanks for the recommendation!

  9. Would you believe I just got this one from the library? I was influenced by Margaret (BooksPlease) who has read many of his books and, just recently, went to an Ian Rankin reading and met the man. I decided to give one of his books a try so I ordered the first one. Based on your experience, I’m glad I did. I can’t wait to open it and get started.

    I liked the interview at the end. I’m going to have to read the whole thing. Thanks for finding it.

  10. lol! i’m persnickety like you and have to start at the beginning of a series. i haven’t read any of these but am always in the mood for a good series. i keep waiting and waiting for a new archy mcnally book but none seem forthcoming. :(

    maybe i’ll try this detective on for size…

  11. I have copy of Rankin’s Doors Open I won in a giveaway back in December but which I’ve never picked up. I’m ashamed to say that, despite my love of Faye Kellerman’s Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series, mysteries/crime fiction in my mind has always been considered very low-brow. But this review and that interview snippet have gotten me re-thinking my prejudices. I guess I’ll be reading that book after all!

  12. It’s kinda weird to see Ian Rankin face. Charity Book stores in the UK and where I go to one day was selling Ian Rankin’s box set at such a low price, and it was a beautiful set, I felt compelled to have it, but didn’t know Rankin enough to make the purchase.

    In my experience Crime + Literary usually don’t mix. But if this is, it must be a great concoction!

    I suppose at some point I might read his books, maybe after you reviewed many more!

  13. I have yet to read a Rankin book but you make it sound like something I should consider. The problem being I’m more than a bit obsessive about starting at the beginning of a series too and I really don’t need another series getting me hooked in. lol.

  14. Your review is fantastic and has left me anxious to try Rankin’s work.

  15. I’m so glad you liked this book. And thanks for the link to Ian Rankin’s interview. I’m reading his books in sequence and have now read about half of them – they’re just great.

  16. I have to start a series at the beginning too! I checked this out of the library last fall, but had to return it before I was able to read it. I think I’m really going to like this series.
    I love that the author went into bookstores and moved his books around :)

  17. Interesting thoughts about whether “crime” books are “real” literature. Some are and some aren’t. This sounds like a better than average one. Have you ever read Susan Hill’s Simon Serraullier books? I think those are “better than average” crime books. I only read one so far .. they are hard to find.

  18. I haven’t read this one yet! It sounds very enjoyable, so I’ll have to put it on my list. I love crime fiction, and the authors I like best all tend to write in a more literary style. I think it’s because a literary style usually means more indepth characterization, and to me, the best crime fiction pays as much attention to character as it does to plot.

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