Award winning author Ian Rankin is best known for his his series of detective novels featuring gruff Scottish Detective Inspector John Rebus. The series spans twenty years and twenty novels, starting with Knots & Crosses in 1987 to the 2007 release of Exit Music.
I’d never read any of the books before, so when Rich bought it to my attention I was intrigued by the opportunity to read the series from start to finish.
So far I’ve read the first 7 books:
- Knots and Crosses
- Hide & Seek
- Tooth & Nail
- A Good Hanging and Other Stories
- Strip Jack
- The Black Book
- Mortal Causes
The initial three novels are roughly written: the language coarse, the stories linear and the characters cardboard cut-outs. The dominant character (besides Rebus) is Edinburgh where the novels are set. Rankin has been praised for his gritty portrayal of the city, its inhabitants and the bleakness of life during the late 1980s and early 1990s but in these three novels the city is played with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Tooth & Nail is a key turning point. Here, in what has (so far) been DI Rebus’ sole foray into London, Rankin formulates a ‘modern’ plotted mystery novel. There is an infusion of psychology, secondary characters acquire their own motivations and the story starts to integrate multiple side-plots.
It develops Rebus as an individual, distinct from the stylised traumatised Scot that features in the first two novels. Rebus shows himself as a House style misanthrope with a unique perspective. His risk taking and unconventional investigative style, scruffiness, chaotic personal life and compulsive book collecting (but not reading) create a credible character much in the style of Morse.
However, the novel degenerates into a Hollywood car chase with a rushed plot twist designed to finish the novel rather than tie together the story. Secondary characters are created and abandoned with little depth. A petty secondary character suddenly resolves into a central character without any depth. Rankin’s portrayal of London is as grim as his portrayal of Edinburgh, making his portrayal of his and Rebus’ home city seem an affectation. It’s by no means a complete product.
The importance of Tooth & Nail can be seen in the three novels that follow: Strip Jack, The Black Book and Mortal Causes (A Good Hanging & Other Stories is a collection of short stories).
In Strip Jack the series comes of age. If you’re interested in reading the series, start with Strip Jack. For the first time the language gets out of the way of the story. The city assumes its role with a subtle intensity that is a welcome shift from the brooding obviousness of the first three novels. The plot is the beneficiary of an intriguing set up and a well paced resolution. Rebus exhibits both a personality and a personal life beyond the casual misanthropy of the first three novels.
The Black Book has been the best of the series so far for me. The most critical development for me has been the introduction of nemesis and Scottish crime boss Morris Cafferty. The ostensibly civil relationship between the pair is especially well written. In every instance that Rebus goes to Cafferty, the pair are unseasonably well behaved and respectful. They acknowledge that life has placed them on the opposite sides of the law and are thus mortal enemies but beyond that they are not all too different.
The last three books represent a sea-change in Rankin’s quality. Gone are the dull characters and ham fisted style of the first books. They are replaced by a human DI Rebus portrayed with a restraint in writing and in a palatable style. The book is staffed with well-rounded secondary characters, whose credible motivations and cunning plans are essential to the plot. Having read the last three books, I’m optimistic that I’ll continue to the end of the series.