He had wanted to update Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" for modern times, Ian Rankin writes about his first Inspector Rebus novel, "Knots and Crosses" in the introduction to the British compilation "Rebus: The Early Years", which contains the first three installments of the series. Oblivious to the mere existence of such a thing as the mystery genre – or so Rankin says – he was stunned to soon hear his book described first and foremost as a crime novel. But eventually this characterization prompted him to have a closer look at the work of other mystery writers, and he found that the form suited his purposes just fine; that in fact he "could say everything [he] wanted to say about the world, and still give readers a pacy, gripping narrative."
Bearing in mind the original duality of Jekyll and Hyde, however, Rankin's tales are not dominated by a contrast painted in black and white. While the villains Inspector Rebus faces are certainly every bit as evil as Stevenson's Mr. Hyde, Rebus himself is far from a clean-slated "good guy:" Divorced, cynical, hard-drinking and a former member of the SAS, he is a brother in spirit to every noir detective from Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe to Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, James Ellroy's squad of crooked cops and Peter Robinson's Alan Banks. Nor is Rebus's Edinburgh the touristy town of Calton Hill, castle and Summer Festival (although the series has meanwhile sparked real-life guided tours to its most famous locations, too) – as befitting a true detective of his ilk, Rankin's antihero moves primarily in the city's dark and dirty underbelly, which is populated by society's losers and where those who have "made it," those with money in their pockets, only show up if they have shady deals to conduct as well.
"Tooth and Nail" (originally titled "Wolfman," for the alias that police have given the subject of their hunt) takes Rebus to London, where – due an earlier case of his own reluctantly deemed an "expert" on serial murderers – he is to assist metro CID with the case of a killer named for the bite marks he leaves on his victims' bodies. Not overly enthusiastic about any aspect of his mission to the capital (and thus mirroring once more the feelings of Rankin himself, who did not much like living there, either, and "brought Rebus to London so he could suffer, too"), Rebus soon alienates his metro counterpart by his constant unwillingness to follow protocol, although the two men get along reasonably well on a personal level. Eventually, Rebus so seriously jeopardizes his and – by extension – Edinburgh CID's reputation with the Met that he is about to be recalled home, when he finally makes the crucial connection that unmasks the killer, just in time to save the young psychologist who has offered her help with the case and who is his latest love interest. (As befits a good noir detective, Rebus has a new flame in every book, not without incurring fresh scars from each separation, however.)
While this series had a terrific start already in its first three novels, published between 1987 and 1992, Rebus's character – and Rankin's writing – has evolved significantly over time. Thus, it is probably wise to read it in the order of publication. Contrary to his nonseries novels, however, which he views much more critically in hindsight, Ian Rankin overall still seems to be happy with his early Rebus books, commenting almost nostalgically: "I can't read them without thinking back to my own early years, my apprenticeship as a crime writer. Read and enjoy." I have nothing to add to that ...