Detective Sergeant John Rebus joined the Edinburgh police force 15 years ago, after leaving the special forces unit of the British Army (SAS). Rebus is a solid cop, respected (if not quite liked) by his superiors. As the story unfolds we learn that Rebus's brutal SAS training left him profoundly troubled, so that he drinks too much, has a failed marriage behind him, and has a somewhat distant relationship with his young teenage daughter Samantha.
When a serial killer starts murdering young girls in Edinburgh, Rebus is drafted onto the team investigating the deaths. At about the same time Rebus starts getting anonymous letters with cryptic messages, which he thinks are from some joker - maybe even his ex-wife or daughter.
As Rebus assists with the serial killer inquiry he's unaware that a reporter, Jim Stevens, is stalking him. It seems that Stevens thinks Rebus's brother Michael - a successful stage hypnotist - is pushing drugs and that detective Rebus is helping him. Stevens hopes that by cracking this 'conspiracy' he'll become famous and successful. The reporter becomes even more determined to nail Rebus when the detective starts dating attractive Detective Inspector Gillian Templer - who once went out with Stevens (literally once).
As the killings continue, and the anonymous letters keep coming, it becomes clear that the murderer has a fixation on Rebus himself. Unfortunately, Rebus can't think who might have a grudge against him, especially since he's blocked memories of his SAS days. Eventually (with a little help) Rebus recalls his past and a tip from the public provides needed clues. The detective puts all this together and figures out the identity and motives of the killer, which leads to a dramatic confrontation.
Though I've read many books in the Rebus series, I hadn't read this first one until now. The story serves as a good introduction to detective Rebus himself, but the plot is too simplistic and somewhat unlikely. It also starts off overly slowly but starts zipping along once Rebus gets into the thick of the investigation.
The author violates one of my pet peeves in this book. As much as I like Rebus as a detective I don't believe his paunchy, sloppy-looking self would get beautiful DI Gill Templer to sleep with him right off the bat. In my opinion (some) male authors are especially prone to write this kind of male fantasy and I never find it credible.
Overall, I enjoyed this first book in the series and feel like it's a good introduction to Rebus and his personality. The series gets even better in later books, with Rebus becoming more fully realized as a character and the mysteries themselves becoming more sophisticated and complex.
Still, I'd recommend the book to mystery fans. The Rebus books are well-worth reading and this is a good place to start.