Ian Rankin Essay - Critical Essays


Inspector John Rebus is a relentless detective with no time for police department politics or respect for the power types he encounters. He pursues crime, and that means he is rarely tactful—indeed he is sometimes barely polite when he confronts complacency, cover-ups, and other forms of resistance to his investigations.

Rebus is in his mid-thirties when he first appears in Knots and Crosses and ages over the course of the series. Retirement age for Edinburgh police is fifty-five, and Rankin has said that means the series will have to end in another three to five novels. The ending of the series is important because it points to Rankin’s achievement: He has not created a fantasy figure, a character that could go on in some timeless fashion solving crimes. Rebus is aware that he is aging, and by his mid-forties he is already considering whether he should give up the job, which for him is all-consuming.

Words such as “poetic prose” and “gritty realism” have been used to describe Rankin’s work, but there is also Rebus’s sly sense of humor, which emerges in the later novels. Rebus gets better at repartee as the man becomes the job, so to speak. Regardless of whom Rebus is interviewing, he remains the same man, refusing to be unduly deferential to authority figures or diplomatic with his colleagues.

Knots and Crosses

In Knots and Crosses, Rebus is introduced as a former army man, divorced and recovering from a nervous breakdown, trying to rebuild his life while serving on the Edinburgh police force. The army had seemed a good solution for a young man who did not want to go to college but felt he had no future in a small Scottish town devastated by the closing of the coal mines. These basic details of Rebus’s life figure in several of Rankin’s novels, serving as a key to the detective’s character. Detective work is as close to a métier as he is ever likely to get. It is also an escape from army regimentation, although working in a city police force inevitably means he will have to deal with bureaucrats and careerists. He does so grudgingly.

When several young girls are murdered in Edinburgh, Rebus calls on newspaper reporter Jim Stevens and another friend. The murders remind Rebus of a childhood trauma he has repressed. The novel’s plot becomes an intricate puzzle (Rebus, as Rankin has pointed out, means picture puzzle).

Hide and Seek

In Hide and Seek (1991), male prostitutes are the victims. Reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), this mystery calls on Rankin’s considerable knowledge of literature. Some kind of satanic cult seems to be involved in a complex interplay of milieus that includes Edinburgh drug culture. Complicating Rebus’s investigation is a cast of two-faced characters. Their duplicity emphasizes the good/evil, Jekyll/Hyde axis on which this novel rotates. As is often the case in the Rebus novels, crimes are not viewed in isolation but rather as symptoms of a corrupt society, not to mention a sickness that strikes deeply into the human soul.

Black and...

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