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. While this book does not have the pace of a “thriller,” 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!
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?”
You can find the entire interview, conducted by Breandain O’Shea, here.