A classic revisited: Knots & Crosses

First edition front cover of Knots & Crosses

We’ve been together now for 30 years, and it doesn’t seem a day too much. Yes, John Rebus and his devoted fans go back a long, long way, although even his creator, Ian Rankin, seems a little taken aback at the staying power of one of crime fiction’s most popular characters. You see, Rebus was originally conceived as a one-off. In fact, at one point Rankin even toyed with the idea of killing him off in Knots & Crosses. But (spoiler alert) he didn’t – and the rest is history.

On the 30th anniversary of its publication, it’s wonderful to dive deep into Knots & Crosses once again and marvel at how far the man and his creator have come. There’s no sign of the Oxford Bar and Rebus is living in Marchmont. Like Harry Bosch, he loves jazz (in later books, Rebus is transformed into a rock fan), and he is surprisingly well read. So the bare bones of the character are there but, like with any 30-year-old friendship, we’ve learned a lot more about Rebus as the years have progressed. It’s early days here, but already the whisky fumes and clouds of nicotine-scented smoke permeate from the pages.

Capital of Scotland
Then there’s the setting, for who is Rebus without Edinburgh? It’s obvious that the city’s tourism bosses agree, because they have thrown their weight behind this year’s RebusFest – an entire festival curated by Ian Rankin to celebrate his detective. But the Edinburgh of the novels isn’t sugar-coated, and that all encompassing sense of place is a major player in Knots & Crosses and the 20 books which followed. These days, many authors turn their locations into almost an extra character, but it was a rare thing back then.

Also rare was a book centring on such a touchy subject. Here, we have a serial killer preying on children, and Rebus is but one of a team of police officers trying to catch the perpetrator. He is on the periphery of the investigation and also living on the edge, both professionally and in his personal life – themes which are destined to recur as the years unfold. The tortured loner is a well worn characterisation, but in Rankin’s hands Rebus becomes a stand-out example. No wonder, then, that he has stayed the course.

But what makes Rankin, and Rebus, so well appreciated? Denise Mina is one of Scotland’s top authors, and has emerged writing gritty Glasgow-based crime fiction almost as a counterpoint to Rankin’s Edinburgh stories. “Rankin’s work has influenced everybody in crime writing, not just in the characters or form but in the absolute commitment to entertaining story telling,” she says. “Literature felt a bit worthy and literary before Ian. It was something you read because you should not as a treat. Rebus has lasted so long because he is real. He is flawed and brilliant and knowable.”

Under the influence
She recalls when she discovered the first Rebus novel and the impact it had: “I first heard of Knots & Crosses a long time before I read it. ‘Some guy in Edinburgh is writing crime novels set there’. I didn’t read it until a long time after Black and Blue by which time I was half in love with Rebus. The setting of contemporary, believable working class culture, drinking, socialising, listening to music, those are things I was most blown away by. It’s hard to remember now but literature didn’t really describe the contemporary world around most us. It was either heightened or re-imagined before Rebus.”

Fellow author Abir Mukherjee agrees: “Ian Rankin is one of my heroes. I still remember the day my sister gave me a copy of Knots & Crosses and insisted I read it. That was almost 20 years ago now. At the time, I’d never heard of Ian Rankin or the ubiquitous John Rebus, but that was the start of a fantastic journey that has influenced me in a way few other authors or literary characters have. It was not only the prose – Rankin has a gift for capturing the mundane and making it beautiful – but the detective himself, a character as human as any I’ve come across, that hooked me instantly. Since then, I’ve read every Rebus novel – there’s so many now that they’ve spilled over from their own shelf on my bookcase and invaded the one previously dominated by Graham Greene.

He adds: “Rankin’s writing has been a huge effect on me, not just the Rebus novels, but the stand-alone books too. Indeed, Doors Open, his tale of an audacious art theft was the catalyst for me to try and write my own story about the perfect crime. I never finished it of course. Maybe one day…”

There are now 21 novels in the Rebus series, and though he has since retired and later on returned to detective work, there might just be a bit more steam left in him. Rankin has also dabbled with books about side characters from the series, such as Malcolm Fox.

On the small screen
The character’s influence reaches beyond the page. Ken Stott played Rebus in the 2007 episode of the ITV series that was entitled Knots & Crosses, but that’s where the similarities end as the plot bears no resemblance to the book. Ironically, despite being the first book it was actually the last episode ever made, crowning the fourth season.

John Hannah played Rebus during the first four episodes of the TV programme Rebus, which were aired between 2000 and 2004, with Stott taking over for seasons two, three and four during 2006-07. In all, there are 14 episodes for you to enjoy. Have a look at the clips below.

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