Detective Inspector John Rebus is a police officer in Lothian and Borders police. He is the star of all of the Rebus novels, and generally is attached to the main criminal cases being investigated during the course of the story.

Born in Fife in 1947, Rebus was son of a stage hypnotist who fought in the second world war. He had a brother, Michael, who wanted to follow in his father's footsteps which led to John being distanced from the family. At the age of fifteen he left school to join the army, and by eighteen he joined the Parachute Regiment. He served during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, under the command of The Mean Machine, but left in 1971 after a violent incident in a pub led by his commanding officer. He then applied to join the SAS, and was sent to "The Cross", a training ground in Herefordshire. He excelled himself during training, and was picked alongside Gordon Reeve to be put into a 2-year training programme for an elite anti-terrorist team. During the training he was captured and tortured, sharing a cell with Reeve for a long period of time. Afterwards he was told he had passed the training, but Rebus turned down their job and left the army entirely.

After leaving the army Rebus suffered a nervous breakdown and moved to a small fishing village on the coast of Fife to recuperate. Here he blocked out many of painful memories about his service and training with the military. He then decided to join the police force, and aided by the army got a place in Borders and Lothian police in Edinburgh. The police were initially hostile towards him because he had only been recruited thanks to his army connections, but he proved himself with hard work and dedication. His father died in 1983.

In 1988, 15 years after joining the police force, Rebus was attached to the case of the Edinburgh Strangler, a serial killer that had been abducting and strangling young girls. He operated from Waverly Road police station, and there met Gill Templer with which he had a short term relationship. He also received a series of taunting anonymous letters containing knotted rope and matchstick crosses. Eventually he came to realise that the notes and the murders all pointed towards himself and the abduction of his daughter. His brother Michael then used hypnosis to help him unlock his repressed memories about his SAS training, and realised the killer was none other than Gordon Reeve, who was working at a local library under the name of Ian Knott. Rebus cornered Reeve and shot him in self defence with his own gun. His daughter was safely rescued at Knott's house.