Commentary
3:55 pm
Thu October 29, 2009

Uncommon Mystery - Knots and Crosses

Murray, KY – This year, BBC reported that Edinburgh, Scotland was the most desirable place to live in the United Kingdom because of its "atmosphere" and "positive reputation." Step into gothic Old Town or the Edinburgh Vaults and you'll see that such was not always the case. Author Ian Rankin strides through the city's grittier side in his book, Knots and Crosses, in which police detective John Rebus must investigate the case of the Edinburgh Strangler. Michael Cohen peaks through the pages of this Tartan Noir' series.

The Edinburgh Strangler is on the loose, killing twelve-year-old girls, and the newspapers are asking the usual questions, namely, "How can this be happening here? This isn't America." Or, alternately, "How can this be happening here? This isn't Glasgow." A police detective working the strangler case muses about the irony of that attitude, thinking of Edinburgh's bloody history, of the murderers Burke and Hare, public executions in the High Street, and Deacon Brodie, the real-life model for Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Knots and Crosses is the first of Ian Rankin's mysteries featuring Edinburgh police detective John Rebus. With a name like Rebus, recalling the puzzles that use images to spell out words, you might expect a cozy mystery and an armchair detective, but this book shows you the grittier side of Edinburgh that the tourists don't see.

The mystery turns out to be very much about Rebus himself, about his past in the military and the Special Air Squadron training that led to his nervous breakdown, about his family especially his daughter Samantha, who is twelve, and his brother Michael, who makes his living as a stage hypnotist.

The reader figures out fairly early that the pieces of string with knots in them and the crosses made of matchsticks that the murderer is sending to Rebus are a punning reference to the game of noughts and crosses nought spelled n-o-u-g-h-t the game Americans call Xes and Os or tic-tac-toe. But to get to the rest of the puzzle takes a mental journey back to events Rebus's memory has been suppressing for years. The book has a unique expository technique for giving Rebus's background; instead of the usual second chapter of personal history by an impersonal narrative voice, we have Rebus himself, late in the book, telling his back-story under hypnosis. And the mental journey deep into Rebus's psyche has its physical counterpart late in the story as he pursues the strangler deep into tunnels beneath the city.

Ian Rankin has said in interviews that Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde was an influence that he applied to the dual nature of the city of Edinburgh its pretty tourist side and its scary underworld side. He was also clearly influenced b y William McIlvanney's Glasgow detective Laidlaw. But apparently Rankin thought of this book as a one-off mainstream novel rather than a mystery genre series-starter. He was talked into continuing with the character, however, and ended up writing seventeen Inspector Rebus novels over twenty years, starting with this one in 1987.The American writer James Ellroy has coined a new term for the work of writers such as McIlvanney and Rankin, and he proclaims Rankin "the king of Tartan Noir." At the moment Rankin is probably the UK's top selling crime author.

 

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