At just over 200 pages, Knots and Crosses is by no means huge, but it’s astonishing that a considerable number of reviewers for Rankin’s first Rebus novel think that the length of a novel is actually commensurate with its quality. In the same way that you can’t judge a book by its cover, so shouldn’t you judge it by the number of pages it contains. The Rebus series is legendary: so popular, in fact, that when Rankin announced that he would be retiring Rebus from active duty, a member of the Scottish parliament requested that the retirement age for detectives be extended so as to keep Rebus on the force and on the bookstore shelves for a little longer. Such is our affection for this gritty, over-drinking, over-smoking, relationship nightmare: a man of high moral fibre, but equally corresponding self-loathing.
Rankin allows us into the complex life and mind of Rebus, and this is part of the main attraction: this and a glimpse into the grimy underworld of Scottish crime away from the romanticised tourist haunts of Edinburgh. In this first novel, Rebus is transferred to work on a disturbing case where teenage girls, the same age as his own daughter, are being murdered. At the same time, he begins to receive anonymous notes accompanied by a knot of string or a matchstick crucifix. The taunting messages are all pieces of the puzzle that are supposed to lead Rebus to the murderer. His past is intertwined with the murderer’s plot and Rebus needs to solve the riddle of his own personal connection to the murderer.
The novel was published in 1987 and although certainly not the best in the series, it establishes the basis for the subsequent 16 books and introduces us to Detective Sergeant John Rebus (later promoted to Inspector), and focuses largely on building his character and background. Described as Tartan Noir, these stories don’t pull any punches: sharp edges are not rounded off and we are left with a raw, stark experience of crime and corruption, as well as a view of life in the police force and the personal struggles of those involved. Enjoyable for both men and women alike, the former see Rebus as a man’s man – a hero, while the latter have the added benefit of perceiving his vulnerability, making him extremely sexy in addition to manly (especially with John Hannah playing the lead role in the TV mini-series).