I always forget when I pick up this book just how much I love its characters. Rebus is introduced so well, so effectively, that you leave the book thinking that you know him personally. You begin to wonder just how his superiors cannot see him the way that you do, how people could be so blind to the wonderful bits of his character. And yet, you understand his failings because he shares them with you, but guards them so well against everyone else.
I think there is a good possibility that if Rebus were real and not quite so much older than me, I could be in love with him. This of course, is when I remind myself that he is a work of fiction, and I have to also remind myself that he does have his many, many faults.
So, before I get too carried away in my affection, the basic plot of the novel may help to ground some of my readers who have not yet been introduced to the Scottish detective. Knots and Crosses is the first book in the series, and we meet John Rebus as he is placing a wreath of flowers on his father’s grave. Not particularly fond of his deceased dad, Rebus still feels the need to remember him. After leaving the cemetery, he travels to his brother Michael’s house, where he receives a less-than-warm welcome. Michael and John have never been close. It is somewhere in the drive the reader learns of the abductions – the case that will form the backbone of the novel. Two young girls have been abducted, both around twelve, the same age as Rebus’s own daughter. Rebus is dealing with a fresh divorce, with the separation from his own child, and with the caseload of an Edinburgh Detective Sergeant. He also happens to be receiving crank letters, taunts with bits of string knotted in the envelope. Feeling as if the weight of the world already rests on his shoulders, Rebus gets placed on the abductions case and must shoulder the grunt work, all the while feeling as if something is just out of reach.
From here on out, spoilers are possible.
The interesting and lovely thing about Rankin himself, is that he was working on his PhD in Scottish Literature at the University of Edinburgh when he wrote Rebus. There are tons of literary gems embedded in the novel, including an obsession with Jekyll and Hyde. This obsession morphs throughout the novel itself. The first mention, Rebus calls himself Hyde. He is ashamed at his own reactions while going through case files of sex crimes as background reading for the case. The second time, Rebus equates Jekyll and Hyde to the murderer, a man who could be hiding in plain sight, his own family unaware of the evil lurking within. The third remark is a background on the character – Deacon Brodie was perhaps the inspiration for it. This comment reflects the history of Edinburgh, of its less-than-perfect truths that many would prefer stayed hidden. The fourth time Edinburgh itself is given over to the split character. While Rankin hints at the murky depths of Edinburgh throughout the novel, he does not come out and explicitly state its division until he references it to the famous duo. And though not mentioned, but definitely implied, our killer is the Hyde to Rebus’s Jekyll. They had been friends in the army, blood brothers they called themselves, until Rebus made a decision that left the other man feeling betrayed. So their personalities split, and Hyde is bent on hurting Jekyll for fifteen years until he can finally accomplish his goal. Though, unlike the source novel, only one of the personalities dies.
Rankin also planned Rebus to be a single novel, never imagining that his character would grab at the audience so forcefully. This, obviously, means that Rankin never imagined that the traits he gave his main character would become so important later on. With Knots and Crosses, we as readers get to delve pretty deeply into Rebus’s back story. We find out that he used to work in the Special Air Services (SAS), an elite military group. He was at the top of his game in the army, and then something happened to make him have a nervous breakdown. Though we discover the cause later was extreme torture designed as a test, Rebus cannot shake the effects even fifteen years later. These nightmares have caused him to drink a bit too much, smoke more than he should, and impairs his relationships with others. Though in Knots and Crosses he develops a budding romance with Gill Templar, we still see her doubts because she knows that Rebus is damaged, perhaps beyond repair.
I feel that the first novel is far more personal than the others. I could be wrong, as it has been awhile since I have read all of them, but I think we get a much clearer picture of Rebus as a whole. We learn all about his dysfunctional family within the first three pages, the crime itself is based on a personal vendetta against Rebus, and much of the novel focuses on Rebus’s perceived failure as a father and brother. While he tries to mend the relationship with Michael, Rebus learns that his own brother has been pushing drugs. Though he is a cop through and through, when Rebus first discovers the news he punches the messenger square in the stomach. Of course, in pure Rebus fashion, he then offers the victim a drink. So it evens out. But it is that initial disbelief and violent, protective reaction that displays Rebus’s love for his brother, however broken.
One thing that Rankin has done so very well is present a believably vulnerable man. While his vulnerability extends to many aspects of his life and career, it exhibits here especially in a lack of confidence. After having made a small break in the case, Rebus wants that little bit of praise. He needs reassurance in his work:
But really he needed their pats on the back, their congratulations on a job well done, their acceptance. He needed someone to assure him that it was all going to be all right.
That he would be all right. (pg 108)
This is not something we see in the other novels. Rebus becomes much more sheltered, more isolated. But his hesitation works so well in Knots and Crosses because he is not yet confident in his own abilities as a cop. He is not yet a hard-boiled hero who is a law unto himself. He only goes off on his own here because he is chasing down his own demons and saving his daughter’s life.
As I keep reading the books, I am really going to enjoy watching Rebus change throughout the course of his cases. Though Rankin may not have mapped out his progression, he has created a fantastic foundation on which to build the infamous Scottish detective.
Now to have the will power to pick up something else before starting Hide and Seek.