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Literature / Rebus

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The Rebus books are a series of crime novels and short stories written by Scottish writer Ian Rankin. They centre on Detective Inspector John Rebus, a cynical veteran policeman and former soldier who is divorced. The stories are mostly set in an Edinburgh several steps removed from what the tourists see — although the third book, Tooth and Nail, is set in London and other novels sometimes take Rebus to different parts of Scotland.

The books have won numerous awards and are credited with playing a key role in establishing the "Tartan Noir" genre of crime stories.

Some of the books have been adapted for television, originally starring John Hannah, before Ken Stott took over the role. Rankin wasn't keen on either, and stopped writing novels featuring Rebus for a time until the production company's option on them expired. Other novels have been turned into radio plays for Radio Four, most of which star Ron Donachie. There has also been two stage plays Rebus: Long Shadows, which premiered in 2018 starring Charles Lawson and Rebus - A Game Called Malice that debuted in Hornchurch, Greater London in 2023, with John Michie in the lead role.

In 2020, BBC Scotland produced a short film entitled John Rebus: The Lockdown Blues, in which Brian Cox played the character. A new television adaptation started filming in 2023, with Outlander star Richard Rankin playing Rebus.

As of 2022, there are 24 novels in the series, as well as three collections of short stories and a couple of other novels by Rankin which, although they don't feature Rebus as a character, are set in the same universe.

    The Rebus Books 


  • Knots and Crosses (1987)
  • Hide and Seek (1991)
  • Tooth and Nail (1992) - original title Wolfman
  • Strip Jack (1992)
  • The Black Book (1993)
  • Mortal Causes (1994)
  • Let It Bleed (1996)
  • Black and Blue (1997) - won the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger Award
  • The Hanging Garden (1998)
  • Dead Souls (1999)
  • Set in Darkness (2000)
  • The Falls (2001)
  • Resurrection Men (2002) - won the Edgar Award
  • A Question of Blood (2003)
  • Fleshmarket Close (2004) - American title Fleshmarket Alley note 
  • The Naming of the Dead (2006)
  • Exit Music (2007) - won the ITV3 Crime Thriller Award and the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award
  • Standing in Another Man's Grave (2012)
  • Saints of the Shadow Bible (2013)
  • Even Dogs in the Wild (2015) - won the RBA Prize for Crime Writing
  • Rather Be the Devil (2016)
  • In a House of Lies (2018)
  • A Song for the Dark Times (2020)
  • A Heart Full of Headstones (2022)

Short story collections

  • A Good Hanging (1992)
  • Beggars Banquet (2002)
  • The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Short Stories (2014) - omnibus containing all of the stories from the previous two collections, as well as previously uncollected stories from magazines and newspapers, plus a couple of new ones

Other novels set in the same universe

  • Doors Open (2008)
  • The Complaints (2009)
  • The Impossible Dead (2011)

Tropes Found in the Rebus Books:

  • The Alcoholic: Quite a few characters have drink problems.
  • The Alleged Car: Rebus' Saab 900, particularly in the later books when its increasingly decrepit state parallels Rebus' own aging body.
  • Always Murder: Somewhat justified. Rebus deals mostly with murders (well, a few cases start off as missing persons...) but as a senior detective, that is pretty much what his workload would be. However the short stories have him dealing with more mundane crimes, mainly theft.
  • Badges and Dog Tags: Rebus was in the Army before joining the police.
  • Been There, Shaped History: In The Naming of the Dead, John Rebus and Siobhan Clarke have an interesting encounter with an unnamed US president.
  • Big Bad: The veteran Edinburgh gangster Morris Gerald "Big Ger" Cafferty is Rebus's main antagonist; their relationship veers between outright hostility and an uneasy partnership which happens whenever one of them needs something from the other (as a result of the latter, some of Rebus's colleagues assume that he's on the take). He's often linked to cases that Rebus and Clarke are investigating, but there is never enough evidence to bring major charges against him although he has done time in prison for some of his more minor crimes. In later novels, he claims to have gone straight although he has actually retained criminal control of Edinburgh from behind the scenes.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Happening to Rebus as of Rather Be the Devil, thanks to developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder after a lifetime of heavy smoking. There's also a spot on his lung. It turns out to be benign.
  • Celebrity Paradox: Rebus's favourite pub is the Oxford Bar in Edinburgh's New Town. In real life, this establishment — a favourite of Rankin's — has a fair bit of Rebus memorabilia on the walls.
  • Connect the Deaths: The plot of Even Dogs in the Wild. One of the deaths has only been made to look like it's part of the serial killer's MO, but the others are linked.
  • Contrived Coincidence: In A Song for the Dark Times, Siobhan and the Murder Investigation Team in Edinburgh are investigating the murder of a rich Saudi student, while the retired Rebus heads north to look into his son-in-law's disappearance. It so happens that the lord who owns most of the land up north is a business associate of the Saudi. Subverted in the end, though, as that really is just a coincidence.
  • Cowboy Cop: Rebus is less inclined to use physical violence than your average Cowboy Cop (although he's not entirely above it), but certainly has little place for rules and procedures when they stop him getting his man.
  • Creator Cameo: Sort of. One of the many bands mentioned in the books is the Dancing Pigs, a short-lived student band that Rankin was a member of. In-universe, they made it to the big time to the point where Rebus owns one of their LPs.
  • Crossover: During the Rebus hiatus, Rankin created a new protagonist; DI Malcolm Fox. Fox starred in two novels, The Complaints and The Impossible Dead. When Rankin brought Rebus back in Standing in Another Man's Grave, Malcolm appeared too, and Fox has since become a regular character in the Rebus series.
  • Defective Detective: Rebus has all the stereotypical personal problems associated with being a detective, ranging from what looks like PTSD in the earliest novels to excessive drinking and a failed marriage.
  • Dirty Cop: Played With. Rebus is sometimes seen as one of these due to his closer-than-really-acceptable relationship with gangster Gerald "Big Ger" Cafferty, but he's really on the straight and narrow (mostly) and his relationship with Cafferty is more like Friendly Enemy at best.
    • The first novel, Knots and Crosses, was written in such a way as to imply that Rebus himself could be the killer — although the subsequent publication of another twenty-plus novels rather gives away the fact that he isn't.
    • Played straight with Beth Hastie and Jackie Dyson in Even Dogs in the Wild.
  • Donut Mess with a Cop: Played with; uniform coppers are sometimes referred to as being fond of Greggs (a real-life British bakery chain) but they go there for the savoury products (steak bakes, sausage rolls, etc) rather than the doughnuts. Actually Truth in Television as far as many British Coppers are concerned. Although one of the ones in the world of Rebus does actually arrest someone in a branch of Greggs he recognised the man in front of him in the lunch queue as a wanted criminal.
  • Double-Meaning Title: Hide and Seek is about Rebus hunting a killer and the last thing the victim said was "Hide!" The title also reflects the fact Rankin wrote the novel as a Setting Update of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
    • There is also the main character's name- a "rebus" is a picture that is also a puzzle.
    • Fleshmarket Close starts out in the Edinburgh street of the same name (so called because it used to be a butcher's market), but goes on to be about two different 'flesh markets'; prostitution and people-trafficking.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Rankin has said that Rebus' interests in the early books (jazz music, in particular) were there because Rankin was into those things, and as the novels progressed, Rebus developed more of his own personality.
    • He also said he wrote the first novel, Hide and Seek to make it deliberately ambiguous to the reader if the killer was actually out there (which he was) or if the killer was actually Rebus himself, although of course the mere existence of the rest of the series means that this is lost on most new readers.
    • Siobhan Clarke does not appear until The Black Book, the fifth novel in the series. In the earlier novels, the sidekick role was filled by Brian Holmes, who leaves the police in that novel after suffering a serious injury as a result of a brutal attack which Rebus suspects was orchestrated by Holmes's fiancee, who wanted him to leave the police. However, he cannot prove this.
    • Cafferty first appears in Tooth and Nail and does not become a regular character until The Black Book.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: In Even Dogs in the Wild, Ger Cafferty makes it clear to Rebus that his villainy does not extend to sexually abusing teenage boys in care, and he feels real guilt about his part in covering up for a violent abuser.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Rebus himself in A Heart Full of Headstones, who misses Cafferty's security cameras at a crucial moment.
  • Hero Antagonist: In Standing in Another Man's Grave, Malcolm Fox, the protagonist of Rankin's novels about a police Internal Affairs unit, comes after Rebus because he suspects him of being a Dirty Cop due to his ongoing association with Cafferty.
  • Historical Domain Character: An interesting example in Black and Blue in which the main plot concerns the investigation of a series of killings heavily based on the Real Life unsolved Bible John murders; these are acknowledged in-universe to the point where the perpetrator of the present-day copycat killings is nicknamed "Johnny Bible". Among the minor characters interested in the case is a man who is revealed to the reader via internal monologues as the original Bible John killer.
  • How We Got Here: A Heart Full of Headstones opens with Rebus on trial, and the rest of the novel details what got him there.
  • Internal Affairs: Malcolm Fox was the protagonist of two novels about this aspect of police work before getting drawn into Rebus's world. Other officers have a tendency to hold this against him.
    • An interesting twist in In a House of Lies is that the two internal affairs cops are also the dirty cops.
  • Kicked Upstairs: After the events of Even Dogs in the Wild, Malcolm Fox is promoted to the elite squad at Gartcosh for political reasons that have nothing to do with his qualifications, as he is painfully aware.
  • Limited Advancement Opportunities: Rebus doesn't make it beyond DI, thanks to his joint reputation as Cowboy Cop and Dirty Cop.
    • When he comes out of his 10-Minute Retirement, Rebus winds up demoted to DS, meaning that he's now Siobhan's subordinate.
  • Mutilation Interrogation: In Rather Be the Devil, Ger Cafferty gets information out of a recalcitrant informant by literally nailing him to the floor.
  • My Local: Rebus particularly enjoys spending his spare time in The Oxford Bar, a real pub in Edinburgh which Ian Rankin himself likes to frequent.
  • Old Cop, Young Cop: Rebus and Siobhan. In the earlier novels, Rebus and Brian Holmes.
  • Pet the Dog: Cafferty's behaviour in Even Dogs in the Wild, once he understands the serial killer's motivation.
    • The novel also features a literal example of this trope. Everyone wants to pet the friendly stray terrier who appears outside of Cafferty's house. Eventually, Rebus gives in and adopts him. Brillo, for that is his name, features in subsequent books.
    • Cafferty hires Rebus in A Heart Full of Headstones in order to make peace with a man who had betrayed him. As Rebus figures out, this is a pretext for taking out the interlopers who are on his turf.
  • Religious Bruiser: One of the police officers spends his downtime preaching on street corners.
    • In the first few novels, Rebus himself, when he's still a self-identified Christian.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Quite a few of the books are this, dealing with Scottish political and social issues ranging from nationalism to illegal immigration to the effects of The Troubles on Scotland. These keep in time with real-life events — Set in Darkness, for example, takes place prior to the re-opening of the Scottish Parliament following the 1997 devolution referendum, while The Naming of the Dead is set at the time of the 2005 G8 summit. Rebus himself is mostly apolitical - it's sometimes mentioned that he's only ever voted three times in his life (once each for Labour, the Tories and the SNP), although in more recent stories it's revealed that he voted "No" in the 2014 independence referendum.
    • The Real Life merger of Scotland's police forces into one national force — Police Scotland — happens in Rebus's universe.
    • On a lighter note, the roadworks on Edinburgh's Lothian Road have been going on for so long that even the characters in the Rebus books are complaining about them.
  • Seeking the Missing, Finding the Dead: Any missing person investigation will invariably become a murder investigation.
  • Shout-Out: A few...
    • Brian Holmes, Rebus's sidekick in the earlier novels, was of course named after Sherlock Holmes.
    • This line from Saints of the Shadow Bible in which Rebus recalls his early days in the police:
    "You ever see that programme Life on Mars? It felt like a documentary."
    • In A Song for the Dark Times, Siobhan is surprised to learn that Rebus enjoys reading the Jack Reacher novels.
  • Spiritual Successor: Rebus could be said to be this to Jim Taggart.
  • The Teetotaler: Malcolm Fox, a former alcoholic.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Rebus and Siobhan Clarke with Malcolm Fox in Saints of the Shadow Bible. And Siobhan and Malcolm in later novels.
  • 10-Minute Retirement: Rebus retires at the end of Exit Music, and is working for the civilian cold cases unit in Standing in Another Man's Grave. By Saints of the Shadow Bible, he's back on the job again, albeit with a demotion from Detective Inspector to Detective Sergeant. In subsequent novels, he is retired again but still keen to be more involved in cases than many senior officers would like.
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: Thanks to his rather distant relationship with his daughter, Rebus did not know his son-in-law well. In A Song for the Dark Times, Rebus investigates his disappearance which, given the novels' use of Seeking the Missing, Finding the Dead, can only lead to one thing. He later expresses regret that he never really got to know the man.
  • You, Get Me Coffee: One of the junior detectives is invariably assigned to make the tea for the others. In A Song for the Dark Times, it's DC Phil Yeats, and his vital yet mundane role is remarked upon almost to the point of lampshading.