Sunday, September 19, 2010

Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin

Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin, 1987

Although Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series is wildly popular in the UK, it's lesser known in the US. The seventeen-book series has a reputation for being at the top of the crime fiction genre. I definitely expected to enjoy Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus novel, but I didn't expect to fall in love with it forty pages in.

Rankin is just so good. His prose is a marriage of toughened noir narration and lyrical description. His dialogue is lean and believable. His main character, John Rebus, is a spectacularly realized creation.

The novel's plot is straight out of the police procedural fiction handbook. Inspector John Rebus is an asocial, hard-drinking police inspector in the crime-ridden Scottish city of Edinburgh. He has a history of nervous breakdowns, a young daughter and a dark past, a past that comes back to haunt him when a serial strangler begins terrorizing the city and sending Rebus cryptic messages.

The plot may be classic, but Rankin's style is so unique and his characters so compelling that it feels brand-new.

In a lot of ways, the book is more of a character study than a straight crime novel. We really get to know Rebus and yet he remains a bit of a mystery, to the readers and to himself. He's basically a good, moral man, yet he has a habit of stealing rolls from a bakery for his breakfast.

The mystery plot is really more of a Jekyll and Hyde tale. Rebus and his opposite number are two sides of the same coin. One is good and one is evil, but it is more complex than that. As the killer's fiendish plan brilliantly unfolds, we realize that the question isn't who, but why. The novel's final third is as thrilling a piece of mystery fiction as any I've read.

Rankin's prose is beautiful, sometimes hard-bitten and cruel, sometimes more poetic. He can invoke a sense of place or a state of mind with ease.

While a police-car slept nearby, its occupants unable to do anything save curse the mountains of rules and regulations and rue the deep chasms of crime. It was everywhere, crime. It was the life-force and the blood and the balls of life: to cheat, to edge, to take that body-swerve at authority, to kill. The higher up you climbed into crime, the more subtly you began to move back towards legitimacy, until a handful of lawyers only could crack open your system, and they were always affordable, always on hand to be bribed. Dostoevsky had known all that, clever old bastard. He had felt the stick burning from both ends. (page 42)

The novel is perhaps a bit short, and there's a subplot involving a crime reporter that was not quite at the same level of the rest of the book, but these are very small faults. Knots and Crosses is an excellent novel on any level and a pretty fantastic crime novel. The climax is perfect, which is a very rare achievement in this genre. It doesn't go overboard on action scenes; the book is too cerebral to resort to that.

But it's cynical, beaten-down John Rebus that has me excited for future installments. He promises to be a wonderful series character, at least based on this superb first entry.

NEXT UP: The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

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