• Michael Pogach

Pogach Reviews: Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin


On October 1, 1788, Deacon Brodie was hanged at the Old Tolbooth in Edinburgh, Scotland, on a gallows he himself designed and built. Rumors spread that his intimate knowledge of the gallows, along with a well-placed bribe, led to him surviving the hanging and being spirited out of Scotland to France and beyond where rumors and sightings of Brodie continued for decades.

Brodie was the preeminent cabinetmaker and tradesman in Edinburgh, as well as a city councilman, and one of the more respected men in town. What most Dunedians did not know was that Brodie lived a dual life, one that saw his nights spent gambling, whoring, and thieving in Edinburgh’s nefarious Old Town. He also robbed his clients’ houses and eventually raided the city tax office for hard coin. His duplicitous life served as inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

I mention all this because Detective Sergeant John Rebus mentions it when musing about the duality of both Edinburgh and of the human condition while tracking a serial murderer in Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses.

D.S. Rebus is a well-known copper type: a man with a broken marriage and an estranged brother, who drinks too much and lies to himself about quitting smoking. A man who talks to his daughter too little and doesn’t know how to remedy that relationship. He’s a good detective, but not as good as he could be. Still, when a series of brutal abductions and murders comes to Edinburgh, a city that thinks of itself as immune from such dealings, Rebus finds himself at the center of the case. And not just because of his detective skills.

The anonymous messages are what do it. They begin innocuously enough. Knotted strings and crossed matchsticks and strange, almost limericky, notes. He soon begins to suspect a connection between the abductions and messages to his own mysterious past, and that’s when things get really dangerous.

Knots and Crosses, the first of the Inspector Rebus series, was written over thirty years ago, yet it holds up quite well despite a few of its elements having become a bit cliché in the genre. Take a step back, however, and it’s quite clear how impressive this novel would have been in the late 1980s. It strikes me as very much an intellectual and emotional predecessor of the TV show Luther, starring Idris Elba.

My biggest gripe about the novel is the characters’ overuse of each other’s names in dialogue with exchanges such as (not actual quotes from the novel, but you get the idea):

“What do you think, John?”

“We should pursue it, Jim.”

“Are you sure, John?”

It gets a bit tedious after a while, but I am hopeful that this quirk will diminish in the subsequent Rebus novels.

Overall, I got hooked quickly into Knots and Crosses, and I am eager to read the next book in the series.

4 / 5 stars

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