This novel, the first in a long-running and popular mystery series, introduces the reader to John Rebus, the most reserved and cantankerous inspector on the Edinburgh police force. Like seemingly all fictional cops Rebus has an ex-wife and a growing daughter he rarely sees. He lives in a crummy flat where the hallway smells like cat piss and the pilot light keeps going out. He also has a past that haunts him, having left military service without discussing the reason with anyone.
At the start of the novel Rebus is transferred to a new and horrifying case. Someone has been kidnapping twelve-year old girls, strangling them and disposing their bodies. On top of that, Rebus begins receiving hand-delivered letters taunting him for not figuring it out. There’s also a nosy reporter looking into Rebus and his brother Michael, a stage hypnotist. And of course, a love interest.
There’s a lot going on in Knots and Crosses, including a surprising amount of characters whose points of view are allowed to share the narrative. It’s impressive how Rankin is able to interweave all these plot threads while still maintaining tight focus and a gripping pace. While the mystery could stand a little more mysteriousness, the point is not so much whodunit but the atmosphere and the human underpinnings of the crime.