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.
In a similar fashion to Michael Connelly's first Harry Bosch novel "The Black Echo," where Bosch is forced to revisit the experiences he made as a Vietnam "tunnel rat," in "Knots and Crosses" Rebus must uncover long-buried memories of his SAS past. For hunting a serial killer whom the tabloids quickly dub "The Edinburgh Strangler," and whose headline-gathering murders at first seem totally unrelated, Rebus eventually makes the connection between those crimes and a series of anonymous letters he receives, and realizes that it is he himself who is the killer's true target, and that the murderer's crimes are based on such a cruel scheme – and executed with such inhuman skill and precision – that only one particular man's thoroughly disturbed mind can have come up with them. And at the same time, Rebus is trying to work out his difficult relationship with his brother Michael, whose life is so different from his own – financially successful and ostensibly happily married and squeaky clean throughout, Michael seems to be on the sunny side of life in every respect labeled a failure in Rebus's own life story – but he soon discovers that even Michael has secrets he is trying hard to keep from coming to light.
While this series had a terrific start already in its first novel, published in 1987, 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 very 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 ...