With an opportunity to meet some great mystery authors coming up in September, I’ve been doing some background reading. Up today is Knots and Crosses: An Inspector Rebus Novel (Amazon affiliate link) by Ian Rankin.
There may be a few minor spoilers.
This is the first Inspector John Rebus mystery novel, originally published in 1987.
Summary: A serial killer is strangling young girls in Edinburgh, Scotland. As one of the detectives assigned to the case, John Rebus is battling his own demons, which include debilitating flashbacks and mysterious anonymous notes. Can he figure out how all the puzzle pieces fit together in time?
Mystery Novel Dissection:
The novel starts out with an excellent hook, from the first line:
The girl screamed once, only the once.
That certainly sets the tone and grabs the reader’s attention.
From there, Rankin introduces the characters, starting with Detective John Rebus, the main character. Rebus was in the army, and trained with the Special Air Service (SAS) before becoming a police officer. He also suffers from flashbacks to memories that he has repressed, in many ways making him like Detective Rob Ryan in In The Woods (previous review). In fact, I did wonder if Tana French was influenced by Rankin’s writing.
John’s younger brother Michael is a hypnotist who uses his talents for entertainment purposes. At first it looks like Michael is a side character, but later we learn he is a form of Chekhov’s gun. His ability to hypnotize others helps solve the crime.
Jack Morton is another detective and John’s friend. In one of those funny things that happen when writing, Jack Morton on page 37:
…was thirty-five, six years younger than Rebus.
On page 38,
Morton had been a policeman for two decades…
Doing the math, Jack Morton had become a police officer at a very young 15 years old! Oops… Perhaps “nearly” two decades?
Rather than portrayed as a superhero who does it all, John Rebus gets a lot of help from others along the way, including from a female public information officer (love interest) who figures out the significance of the anonymous notes. In fact, the help from other people goes a little too far at times, making Rebus seem the passive recipient of information rather than an active investigator. It does make him seem believable and human, though.
In the end, author Rankin makes good use of the “ticking clock” to build suspense towards the climax. Will Rebus be able to find the killer in time, before he kills again as he has promised?
For what I’ve read Ian Rankin was 25 years old when he wrote Knots and Crosses, so he did a magnificent job creating the older, grizzled character in John Rebus. It is a riveting mystery that is well-paced, with a nicely-detailed setting and believable plot. Rankin doesn’t provide a lot of red herrings or overt clues, but it builds logically to a suspenseful climax. I can’t wait to read more of the twenty-some novels featuring Inspector John Rebus.
The next mystery novel in the series is Hide and Seek: An Inspector Rebus Novel by Ian Rankin.
Photograph from PublicDomainPictures.net
You wrote: “At first it looks like Michael is a side character, but later we learn he is a form of Chekhov’s gun.”
What’s that mean, a “form of Checkhov’s gun.” ?
You know, I wasn’t really much of a mystery reader until we started this blog and now I keep adding more books/authors to my “want to read” list, and they are mostly in the mystery/detective genre! 😉
Basically a Chekhov’s gun is that if you (as a writer) incorporate an element into a scene, you should use it later.
Quote: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”
Rankin gave Michael abilities he would put to use later, rather than just to help define his character.