This earliest Inspector Rebus mystery has all the makings of Rankin’s later successes, but with a simplicity of plot that, in some ways, makes it all the more powerful but in other ways left it somewhat lacking.
The mystery lies in the hand-delivered envelopes that keep arriving at the Inspector’s home, containing cryptic messages and either knotted strings or matchstick crosses. Rebus ignores them, as he is focused on the hunt for a serial killer of young girls, for which no clues seem to exist. Rebus is simultaneously bedding Gil Templer, the police department’s liason to the press, but can’t keep his drinking benders at bay long enough to determine whether the relationship has a future. In an apparent subplot, Templer and Rebus are under the close observation of a jaded reporter who is convinced that Rebus and his brother Michael are engaged in criminal activity, and is determined to make them the springboard for his next big scoop.
Through Rankin’s spare but effective prose—and a little help from a hypnotic trance–we delve deep into Rebus’ psyche and learn what lies at the source of John Rebus’ nightmares, alcoholism, and inability to sustain stable relationships, dating back to his time spent in the SAS (Special Air Service) before joining the police force. We learn of a relationship born during that period which haunts him—both psychologically and literally—to this day, and which both lies at the heart of the novel’s mystery and is the most powerfully-written portion of the novel.
There are a number of perplexing turns that Rankin takes in this novel, including having Rebus’ ex-wife engage in a love affair with the “failed poet” son of Rebus’ superior and nemesis on the police force, and a one-night drunken stand with a lonely widow during which Rebus nearly strangles the poor woman. The first was a completely unnecessary plot point adding nothing to the novel, while the second was clearly intended as a shocking glimpse into Rebus’ tortured soul, but somehow felt wrong.
Once the murderer’s identity is uncovered and the inevitable confrontation with Rebus occurs, I feel that the novel takes a turn for the worse. Rebus completely loses his focus on the next victim—who just happens to be his own daughter!—and stumbles at an exasperating pace through what turns out to be, quite literally, an extended guilt trip into hell. The epilogue was designed to tidy up a few loose ends, but was so unsatisfying that it left me grinding my teeth in frustration. What becomes of Rebus, apparently, was left for the next book. The prerrogative of the serial author, I guess.