The many shades of grey in a fictional detective

Make way, for there’s a highlander gumshoe on the block, and he’s ditched the deerstalker for a dram of Scotch and the not-so-postcard-perfect streets of Edinburgh.

The many shades of grey in a fictional detective


Make way, for there’s a highlander gumshoe on the block, and he’s ditched the deerstalker for a dram of Scotch and the not-so-postcard-perfect streets of Edinburgh. Forget about your parlour games of quaint mysteries with tea and biscuits; John Rebus is more likely to solve a case with a raised eyebrow and a well-timed quip than a magnifying glass. He’s not untangling crimes; he’s throwing shade and solving mysteries on the side, all while making detective work look like a rebellious art form.

Our sleuth doesn’t merely crack cases; he takes them out for a pint and an existential crisis afterward. Ian Rankin, the maestro who gave birth to this detective from his literary crucible, is back with another crime thriller novella, The Rise. This time, however, it’s a departure from Rebus; rather, it’s DS Gillian Gish’s case. Nevertheless, Rankin has garnered the most acclaim for his series of detective novels that showcase the unconventional investigator, John Rebus. This particular collection of works has become the hallmark of Rankin’s literary prowess, drawing attention and applause for its portrayal of the unorthodox detective’s escapades.

A young Rankin, an English Literature graduate, concocted Detective John Rebus in his Edinburgh bedsit back in 1985, whereby the investigator, with his estranged wife, young daughter and a sanity teetering on the edge, popped into existence. The title Knots and Crosses preceded the detective, emerging from the twisted puzzle of knotted ropes and matchstick crosses. In Rebus’ debut, we witness the genesis of his unorthodox methods.


When faced with a string of murders linked by a sinister connection to his own past, Rebus doesn’t rely solely on forensic analysis or procedural decorum. Instead, he delves into the psychological maze of the killer, navigating the twisted corridors of his own memories in a desperate race against time. It’s not just about connecting the dots for Rebus; it’s about doing it with style, a dash of cynicism and maybe a splash of good Scotch to lubricate those mental gears. Initially, Rebus was destined for a one-and-done demise in the first draft, but Rankin had a change of heart during edits. It’s a good thing he did because, after lacklustre sales of standalone novels, Rebus rose from the narrative grave in Hide and Seek. Rebus’ art of detection often involves a healthy dose of intuition.

Take Black and Blue for example, where our maverick detective tackles a high-stakes game of cat and mouse with a notorious killer. It’s like watching a poker match where the chips are replaced with lives, and Rebus is the guy who’s got the royal flush hidden up his sleeve. Rebus becomes entangled in a complex web of political corruption and murder as the bodies pile up and the city trembles under the weight of its secrets.

Rebus’ gut instincts guide him through the labyrinth of lies, revealing a truth more chilling than he could have imagined. In The Naming of the Dead, Rebus’ detective prowess takes centre stage during a high-profile political event. Amidst the chaos of a G8 summit, he uncovers a conspiracy that transcends the borders of traditional crime. While other detectives might be bogged down by protocol, Rebus dances on the edge of legality, using his sharp wit and tenacity to expose the hidden connections between power and corruption. Rebus could be the Sherlock of Edinburgh, if Sherlock were a curmudgeon.

Flawed, humane and a professional misanthrope, he scoffs at authority, smokes like a chimney and kicks rules to the curb. An old-school graft aficionado, Rebus prefers the comforting arms of The Oxford Bar to the sterile embrace of modern policing. Rankin’s novels showcase Rebus’ fondness for the local pub scene, a backdrop for many a crucial revelation. In A Question of Blood, Rebus’ quest for justice brings him face-toface with the complexities of loyalty and betrayal. Over pints of beer and games of pool, he navigates the intricate relationships that conceal the truth, showcasing a detective who understands that solving a case is often as much about decoding human nature as it is about collecting evidence.

Also, let’s not forget The Hanging Garden, where Rebus dives headfirst into the murky waters of gangster intrigue. He wades through a sea of deception, political manoeuvring and enough red herrings to satisfy a Scottish banquet. Rebus doesn’t just follow the breadcrumbs; he leaves a trail of his own, laced with his trademark wit and a dash of dark humour. As Rebus ages in real time through each book like a fine malt whisky, we get more flesh on those metaphorical bones. Born in 1947, raised in Cardenden, Fife, and seasoned in the army during The Troubles, Rebus faced a nervous breakdown before joining the Lothian and Borders Police in ’73.

His marriage, a casualty of the ’80s, left behind exwife Rhona and daughter Samantha, who add extra layers to the detective’s complex character. One of the defining features of Rebus’ detective work is his ability to read between the lines of the human psyche. The detective keeps deciphering the twisted narratives of the people involved. But Rebus isn’t all hard edges and no heart.

Beneath the tough exterior lies a character with a profound sense of justice, albeit a justice that occasionally stretches the boundaries of legality. He’s a maverick with a moral code, a man who might kick down a door to catch a criminal but will agonise over the consequences afterward. Rankin’s writing skillfully captures the essence of Rebus’ unorthodox approach to detection. The prose is a journey through the labyrinthine streets of Edinburgh, where each twist and turn mirrors the complexity of Rebus’ own character. The pacing is relentless, mirroring the urgency with which Rebus tackles each case, as if he’s racing against both the clock and his own demons.

So, whether he’s chasing down the Edinburgh Strangler in 1987 or contemplating retirement in the latest instalment, Rebus remains the same whisky-soaked, rule-defying, and eternally captivating detective we can’t help but root for.

(The writer is a journalist on the staff of The Statesman.)