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knots and crosses

24 january 2012

Many people, knowing that I am a barely functional crime-fiction addict, recommended that I read Ian Rankin's John Rebus series. Determined to start at the start this time, I combed the shelves of the hole-in-the-wall used-book store where I used to get my Bomba the Jungle Boy volumes, and managed to find the very first of the Rebus novels, 1987's Knots and Crosses.

How many good detective series about aging men with personal angst started at around that time? The first Kurt Wallander novel came in 1991. The first Montalbano was in 1994; the first Erlendur in 1997 . . . no, I guess there's no real trend; my knowledge of these series is so slender and my selection bias so strong that I can't really generalize. The "depressed detective" procedural is a flourishing genre, but it has had steady recruits over a long period.

Rankin has the perfect setting for such a series, though: rainy, austere Edinburgh, a city of contrasts: Enlightenment and intolerance, postcards and drug dens, Jekyll and Hyde. Rankin dwells on these contrasts throughout Knots and Crosses, ultimately embodying them in a chase scene that takes place – too quickly for my tastes – through an underground warren of ruins underneath a very proper public library.

Knots and Crosses is a shade too melodramatic for my tastes; I prefer slightly more astringent stories. But I want to read on in the Rebus series; I suspect it became more mundane as it aged. In Knots and Crosses a terrifying serial killer has Edinburgh in his grasp, and John Rebus, an enigmatic, introverted, unpromoted detective fortyish sergeant finds himself at the focal point of the entire huge case – not to mention the drug deals that his hypnotist brother is undertaking, or the affair that a police chief's poet son is having with Rebus's ex-wife, or the affair that Rebus himself is having with a comely inspector who once dated the hot-shot reporter who's trying to break all these cases at once. "Incestuous," somebody says of all the intertwined mysteries at one point. But while the plot verges on overload, the exposition remains clear and clean, and the different strands don't tangle.

Being a slow reader (in the global sense) means that you keep getting transported via time machine. Starting the Rebus series 25 years late, I am taken back to a world before mobile phones, where print newspapers dominate the media and police files are made of dusty manila. The procedural genre has adapted well to the wireless, computer, and Internet age, but there's still something like homecoming to see cops pounding a beat and rummaging through old clippings. (This nostalgia accounts for the appeal of the British TV crime series Life on Mars, for instance.) Long may the 20th century thrive.

Rankin, Ian. Knots and Crosses. 1987. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.