Ian Rankin talks mortality and Inspector Rebus
After he lost his sister and his friend Iain Banks, Ian Rankin had a vision of himself dead at his computer. But after a year off, he and his creation are back in Edinburgh’s underworld, writes Margarette Driscoll
As the congregation filed out of a memorial service for the writer Iain Banks two years ago, Ian Rankin stayed behind. Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir — Banks’s choice of closing song — was playing and Rankin stood for a few moments, wishing his old friend was beside him for a final spot of air guitar.
He can still sometimes hear Banks’s great guffaw echoing round the wood-panelled bar at the Abbotsford pub in Edinburgh, their favourite watering hole. The last time he saw Banks, shortly before he died in June 2013, was at the Abbotsford, at a table just across from where we’re sitting now. Banks, author of The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road, had been diagnosed with cancer three months earlier. “A bunch of us got together in here and it was fairly … dark,” Rankin says. “Iain came in just for a short while. Even then he was joking that he looked like Grampa Simpson because he was so yellow from jaundice.
“That was his way. The first thing he said to his partner, Adele, when he found out he was going to die was, ‘Would you do me the honour of becoming my widow?’ So they got married; then he bought a fast car and drove around Scotland picking up as many speeding tickets as he could, saying he’d pay them later.”
Banks’s death had a profound impact on Rankin, one of Britain’s finest crime writers. His Inspector Rebus novels, set in Edinburgh, have defined “tartan noir”. Rankin, 55 — who still looks like the Edinburgh student he once was with his choppy haircut, baggy T-shirt and plimsolls — has sold more than 20 million books and was dutifully knocking out a new one to a deadline every year when Banks’s death brought his career to a juddering halt.
It was the last of a string of losses and shocks that had left him feeling “knackered and shattered”, so much so that he decided to take a year out: “Miranda, my wife, saw it was all getting to me. She said, ‘Don’t sign another contract’, and I didn’t. I realised I didn’t want to die with my boots on. I didn’t want to be found slumped over the computer. I wanted to go and smell the roses for a while.” His latest Rebus novel is titled Even Dogs in the Wild. It’s the first since his self-imposed period of grace, and when he sat down to write it this year the words “flew” on to the page: “I really needed to recharge my batteries, and it seems to have worked.”
His year off began where he is spending this weekend: in a cottage in Cromarty on Scotland’s northeast coast. “There’s no mobile signal,” he says. “The house is right on the waterfront. You can go for lovely walks and just relax.”
His year off also included holidays in Barbados, Italy and Greece. More recently he has done grape-picking and been to a school reunion. “My wife says it’s getting into your 50s — the 50s are dangerous,” he says. “Your friends start dropping like ninepins and you start to wonder if you’re going to be next.”
The first loss was his older sister Maureen. Then he got a message to say a show he was due
to perform with his friend the Scottish folk singer Jackie Leven would have to be cancelled: “He was pretty ill with cancer. He hadn’t treated his body with reverence, shall we say.”
The last time he had seen Banks before his diagnosis of cancer was at the funeral of Gavin Wallace, head of literature at the Scottish Arts Council and another of the Abbotsford crew: “A lovely guy, unassuming, really quiet, a champion of writers, and he literally dropped dead. I still don’t know why. One day he just keeled over.”
Four months later Banks died. He had been hoping to live to see the publication of his final novel, The Quarry, but missed it by less than two weeks. “On publication day a few of us went round to Adele’s. It was a gorgeous, hot day and we sat in the sun drinking whisky and champagne,” says Rankin.
Adele gave him a copy of the book. He took it home but could not bring himself to read it: “I’ve still not. If I haven’t read it, he’s still alive — there’s still a part of him out there to be discovered.”
Rankin admits it took a long time to get used to doing nothing but reading the paper and filling in crosswords. He’s a control freak who does everything himself, from posting signed copies of books for charity to reserving rooms in the hotels where he will stay at literary festivals. “If I had someone working for me I’d only be hovering over them, fretting that they weren’t doing things my way,” he says.
The months of idleness did have an effect, though: halfway through he began to “get the itch” and composed some short stories for fun. He wrote the introduction to a musician’s autobiography and an appreciation of Van Morrison’s lyrics.
“I’d been so long on the treadmill, it was years since I’d written anything just because I fancied doing it,” he says. “I never had the time.”
In between he caught up with old friends. “Isn’t that true, though? When you lose people, you start to think more about the people that are still there and want to spend time with them,” he says.
“It’s not just nostalgia; it’s a connection with your roots. It makes you remember what matters, especially these days when people think they’ve got a lot of friends because of Facebook. Could you run to them in a crisis or tell them your troubles? What people think of as friendship now isn’t necessarily what I think of as friendship. Ninety-one thousand people follow me on Twitter; I probably physically know about 50 of them.”
On a weekend in October he went to a school reunion. One of his oldest friends, Steve, flew in from Vermont. “He was best man at my wedding and I was best man at his, but I hadn’t seen him for years.” Seeing his classmates from 1976 was “incredible”, although that was bittersweet as well because two had died. Next day he and Steve tried to watch the Scotland team play their last match of the Rugby World Cup against Australia (Rankin was so tense he had to sit in another room and ran in only whenever he heard Steve cheering).
Rankin’s friend JK Rowling was watching too and was given a stream of abuse on Twitter as an “80-minute” patriot when she praised the team: “I follow JK and Muriel Gray on Twitter and it was just a wee conversation between them, and then this guy dives in saying, ‘You’re not allowed to say that because you voted no [in the Scottish referendum].’ It’s insane. She gives back but she cleverly, wittily defuses it; she’s brilliant.”
The highlight of recent months has been grape season in southwest France. He and Miranda returned to Chateau Brandeau, a commune run by an old hippie couple with whom they had stayed after they graduated from Edinburgh in 1982. There they had spent six months living in youthful bliss, picking grapes, feeding chickens and looking after the pigs. The son of the original owners invited a few old friends to pick his last vintage.
“It was fantastic, except I’m not 22 any more. When I’d done a day’s picking, I thought: ‘I’ve got to have a day off.’ My back was killing me, and my knees. I thought: ‘Shit, Ian, get on with it.’ But the grapes are quite low, so you’re crouched over or on your knees, cutting the grapes to put in the pannier. So I worked alternate days. Fifty-five, huh? It’s all going — the knees, the eyesight, all of it …”
Rebus is feeling his age too. Some years ago Rankin ended his character’s police career, only to bring him out of retirement in a “cold case” investigation. This time Rebus is pulled in as a consultant when the murder of a Scottish lord connects him to Edinburgh’s low-life.
He can’t go on for ever, Rankin says, but there’s good news for Rebus addicts: after another break he plans to give the old curmudgeon one last outing.
RANKIN PLANS TO GIVE REBUS THE OLD CURMUDGEON ONE LAST OUTING
Even Dogs in the Wild is published by Orion, $32.99.
Ian Rankin, main picture; Iain Banks, left; John Hannah in the title role in the TV series Rebus, below left