Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Knots and Crosses

Miss Lemon is probably not alone in disliking the clichéd tendency to describe all crime fiction set in Scotland as 'gritty.' Even so, there's something of the air of seediness that cannot be ignored in Ian Rankin's Knots and Crosses (1987), and Miss Lemon is not entirely sure that it's her cup of tea.

For starters, the crimes described in this first of the Detective John Rebus novels are horrendous. A lunatic, someone with John Rebus's postal address, is on a spree, abducting, then brutally strangling, a succession of young girls. After each deed, the killer is kind enough to send Rebus a note: a cryptic word puzzle of sorts and always with a memento of either a knot or a cross.

What struck Miss Lemon as odd is that there's very little detection that goes on in this book. It's clear from the beginning that Sgt. Rebus is no Hercule Poirot when he cannot see that his brother is dealing drugs on a large scale, despite all the clues before him. What's more (and Miss Lemon begs your pardon if this gives too much away), the solution to the case and the identity of the killer come only after Rebus allows himself to be hypnotized. Of all things!

Based on the enormous popularity of the John Rebus novels and the success of Ian Rankin as an author, there's little doubt in Miss Lemon's mind that the books improve over time. Indeed, the narrative pace and the little foibles given to Rebus (he has the unethical habit of stealing breakfast rolls from an unattended bake shop of an early morning) are things she greatly admired. But the violence, the vindictiveness and the author's decision to bring the criminal -- and the crime -- so close to Rebus's home are examples of the grittiness she'd so greatly like to avoid.

Yes, yes. Call Miss Lemon outmoded with an eye for nothing but the country-house cosy. She'll take her lumps. Still, she'd rather have a good old-fashioned case of arsenic in the tea and a vigorous exercise of the leetle grey cells any day.

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