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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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.


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

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