Recently knighted for services to literature and charity, Scottish author IAN RANKIN continues to thrill readers worldwide with the cases of iconic detective John Rebus.
CRAIG SISTERSON reports.
The courtroom looks different to John Rebus. Not just because the jury box sits vacant, with those ordinary citizens who’ll decide the defendant’s fate squirrelled away in a nearby cinema, watching proceedings by video link so they can weigh matters while keeping COVID safe. Not just because everyone who is in the room, bar Rebus and the judge, are wearing masks. It looks different because while the retired detective has spent countless hours in the witness box, he’s never been the one standing in the dock. The accused. The long-time maverick copper, now remanded in custody at HMP Edinburgh. Saughton, as most call it.
The older he gets, the further away he gets from the days when he was actually a serving detective.
Thirty-five years after Rebus first appeared in Knots & Crosses (1987), investigating a case of abducted and murdered young girls that hit close to home with his military past and his own family, the Edinburgh detective is still being put to the test by his creator, Ian Rankin.
Or Sir Ian, as we should perhaps now call the Scottish storyteller, after he received a knighthood for his services to literature and charity in this year’s Queen’s Birthday honours.
Speaking at the recent Edinburgh Book Festival ahead of the publication of A Heart Full of Headstones, his 24th Rebus novel – which sees the ageing sleuth standing trial for crimes related to a past case – Rankin admitted it’s getting tougher to find new stories for Rebus.
‘The older he gets, the further away he gets from the days when he was actually a serving detective,’ said Rankin. ‘It presents me with challenges as to how to inveigle his way into a police inquiry, but it can be a lot of fun. He can’t get past the front door of a police station anymore because he doesn’t have a warrant card. It’s fun for me to see challenges for him, while also trying to keep it realistic that he could still, at his age, be involved in police inquiries.’
While Rebus’s future (and freedom) is very precarious in Rankin’s exciting new novel, the iconic detective has been living somewhat on borrowed time for the past decade, since he first re-emerged after a five-year hiatus following forced retirement in Exit Music (2007).
Early on, Rankin had made the decision to age his Edinburgh copper in real time – and given Rebus had started as a 40-year-old in Knots & Crosses, that meant 20 years later he smashed into the brick wall of the (then) compulsory retirement age, 60, for Scottish police.
By that time Rebus was one of the most beloved characters in modern crime fiction. Novels like Black & Blue (1997) and Resurrection Men (2002) had scooped the biggest prizes on both sides of the Atlantic, the Gold Dagger and the Edgar. Thirteen of the Rebus novels and one short story were adapted for television across four series, starring John Hannah, then Ken Stott, as the noble curmudgeon, who Rankin calls ‘a born anarchist’. In the mid-2000s, around one in every 10 crime novels sold in the UK was written by Rankin. And in 2005, he received the Diamond Dagger for an ‘outstanding lifetime’s contribution’ to crime writing.
AGEING COPS, CHANGING WORLDS
While Rebus’s first retirement in 2007 vexed fans, and reportedly even had members of the Scottish Parliament suggesting the real-life police retirement age could be lifted so he could continue, Rankin himself had few regrets about creating a character who didn’t remain the same. Speaking to me back in 2012, Rankin admitted he found the alternative rather odd.
I want to write novels that look at why we continue to do bad things to each other as human beings.
‘You’ve got these detectives who are ageless,’ he said. ‘The world around them is changing, but they can’t really be affected or changed by the world. And one thing I know about cops is that they are changed, they are changed by everything that happens to them in their job, they’re changed by the new technology that comes along and gives them more tools in solving crimes. So, I just thought that I don’t want my detective to be stuck, a museum piece, I want him to evolve. And that will allow me to show the city that he lived in, to show that it was also evolving, that Edinburgh was changing.’
Exploring the city of Edinburgh has long been a big driver of Rankin’s writing.
After growing up in a working-class family in the small Fife town of Cardenden, about an hour’s train journey from the big city – and just a few miles from Kirkcaldy, where fellow Scottish crime writing royalty Val McDermid grew up in a working-class family – Rankin moved to Edinburgh to study literature at the university in the early 1980s. He wrote his first Rebus novel while he was meant to be completing a PhD on the writing of Muriel Spark.
He dabbled with literary fiction, before finding his home with crime.
‘I wanted to write about contemporary Edinburgh, because I didn’t think anybody was doing it at the time,’ he recalled. ‘I was very aware of Edinburgh’s literary history – so we’ve got stuff like Jekyll and Hyde. And I just thought Edinburgh is a Jekyll and Hyde city; it’s a city that can seem to the tourist to be polite and well-ordered, and yet there’s a lot of chaos beneath the surface. And I thought a contemporary crime novel would allow me to look at those resonances: at the way the Edinburgh of the past is reflected in the Edinburgh of the present, and in the way we are still Jekyll and Hyde characters, we human beings. We are all capable of great kindness, and yet we are also all capable of acts of evil.’
While crime novels don’t have to be political, or about what’s happening in our cities in present times, says Rankin, that’s what he personally wants to write about.
‘I want to write novels that look at why we continue to do bad things to each other as human beings. But also look at the way the world is changing and look at why crime happens. Why does crime happen? It happens because of the environments we have created, it happens because of the societies we have created, and the imbalances in society.’
WILLIE AND IAN
A detective, says Rankin, is a perfect character for examining society as a whole.
‘I can’t think of any other character, any other template you could use, that allows you access to any area of society,’ he said. ‘A journalist can do a lot, but people can close a door on a journalist, refuse to speak to a journalist. If a detective drags you around to the police station for an interview, they’re going to get answers from you.’
Rankin saw a great example of that in action thanks to one of his earliest, and most impactful, writing influences: William McIlvanney. If Rankin is the King of Scottish crime fiction, then McIlvanney is the Godfather. Or perhaps the Vito Corleone to Rankin’s Michael.
Writing is a way of not having to think too hard about the mess the world is in.
It was McIlvanney’s ‘Laidlaw’ books, starring a gritty yet philosophical Glasgow detective, that Rankin says ‘kind of made it okay’ for him to write crime fiction, because McIlvanney was a novelist who’d won prizes for his literary works then stumbled into crime fiction.
Reading Laidlaw, originally published in 1977, helped Rankin get the idea for Rebus.
‘I met Willie, I think in 1985, at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and said, “Oh Mr McIlvanney, I’m writing a book that’s a bit like Laidlaw but set in Edinburgh”,’ recalls Rankin. ‘He then signed my book with “Good luck with the Edinburgh Laidlaw”.’
More than a decade later, after Rankin was on his way to great success, McIlvanney popped into an early Glasgow event for Black and Blue, the eighth ‘Rebus’ novel and Rankin’s breakout book.
‘There were about 20 people there, and Willie and I went for a drink afterwards, and became friendly after that, though at the time I was living in France. We’d write to each other, meet up and sometimes do events together. So, I was able to tell him what a huge influence he’d been, not only on me, but on most Scottish crime writers.’
After McIlvanney passed away in late 2015, the Scottish crime writing prize, presented each year at the Bloody Scotland Festival in historic Stirling, was renamed in his honour.
Then last year, a new ‘Laidlaw’ novel hit booksellers’ shelves. A prequel to McIlvanney’s renowned trilogy, based on 100 pages of notes McIlvanney had left, completed by Rankin.
The Dark Remains, which won the Crime and Thriller category at this year’s British Book Awards (the ‘Nibbies’), transports readers back to 1972 to witness the earlier days of a ground-breaking detective. In the early days of COVID lockdowns, it provided a welcome challenge for Rankin – and distraction from contemporary circumstances – on several fronts: an historical novel, set in Glasgow not Edinburgh, and starring someone else’s detective.
Rankin performed a masterful act of literary ventriloquism in a brilliant read. It ia gritty, atmospheric, and menacing. And now he seems to have come back to his own iconic character of John Rebus refreshed.
In A Heart Full of Headstones Rankin embraces the realities and impact of COVID lockdowns, while delivering a strong new instalment in a game-changing series.
A decade ago, Rankin told me crime writing was therapeutic, allowing authors to channel a lot of the darkness from their heads out onto the page. In these tumultuous times, when so much seems bleak, that still holds true. As he told the audience at the recent Edinburgh Book Festival, ‘Writing is a way of not having to think too hard about the mess the world is in.’
We can leave it to Rebus to deal with the darkness, and the mess.
Visit Ian Rankin’s website here.