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 1999 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.
The title of Rankin's second Rebus novel, "Hide and Seek," is an even more overt play on Robert Louis Stevenson's famous dual character(s) than the mere juxtaposition of cop and killer in "Knots and Crosses;" and when the villain's identity is finally unveiled, the parallels between this book and Stevenson's become even more obvious. Here, Rebus is on the hunt for the killer of a junkie whose half-naked body is found in a run-down, deserted building in the Pilmuir housing estates – the worst part of town, notwithstanding a nearby construction project involving high-priced luxury condominiums – positioned crucifixion-style and near a drawing possibly hinting at Satanic rituals. And Rebus's only witness seems to be the young woman who had been living with the dead man for the last three months and heard him yell "Hide!" before pushing her out of the door, telling her: "They've murdered me;" but who is now more than just a little reluctant to cooperate, taking refuge, instead, behind an almost unbreakable rebel-against-society-facade, complete with peroxide hair, stud earrings and Attitude with a capital "A."
While this series had a terrific start already in its first two novels, published in 1987 and 1991, 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 the novels he wrote under the pseudonym Jack Harvey, however, and which he views much more critically in hindsight, Ian Rankin overall still seems to be happy with his early Rebus books, commenting: "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 ...