Ian Rankin on Rebus and literary heroes.
He’s the Scottish author who created one of the most enduring fictional cops in JOHN REBUS. Working on novels while studying for a literature PHD, he embraced the crime genre and went on to write 21 books in the series. This summer he’s marking 30 years o
“Rebus is a born detective,” he tells Crime Scene. “It’s how he deals with the world, looking into other people’s problems to stop him looking at his own. He can’t give it up, it’s in his blood, and without it he almost ceases to exist.”
Like his fictional detective, Ian Rankin is a man who’s at home in a pub. John Rebus is, of course, a regular at the Oxford Bar in Edinburgh. The real-life pub attracts Rebus tourists and receives fan mail for Rankin, who has a permanent presence alongside the actor who played the detective. “There’s a picture of Ken Stott above the bar, because he came in for a drink once, and there’s a picture of me,” says Rankin. “That’s about as much immortality as they’ll give you in the Oxford Bar. I don’t even get a free drink when I go in.”
He’s talking to Crime Scene in London, though his celebrity status in Scotland means he’s probably spotted by fellow countrymen wherever he travels. Our interview, over pints of foamy beer in a Marylebone pub, is interrupted by a Scotsman who can’t quite believe he’s found his country’s greatest living crime writer having an afternoon tipple.
But it’s been quite a journey for Rankin, who took a decade to reach bestseller status. Our hour-long conversation is taking place to mark 30 years since the first Rebus, Knots And Crosses. In the summer, his publisher is celebrating with a Rebusthemed festival (Rebusfest) in Edinburgh. It’s hard to believe it’s been three decades, not least because the 56-year-old still has the look of the PHD student who embarked on a career in crime. Dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt, he resembles the sort of bloke you might find browsing in record or comic shops – which is exactly what he’s been doing during his trip to London.
He’s also been busy meeting readers and signing copies of Rather Be The Devil, another tangled case involving the retired detective looking into a historical crime that might involve gangster “Big Ger” Cafferty. As well as earning rave reviews, the 21st Rebus is another bestseller that’s been jostling with Lee Child in the top 10. And it’s telling that when Rankin discusses his ageing detective, he sounds like he’s talking about a real person that he’s known these past 30 years. Your debut book, The Flood (1986), was a literary novel. Was the first Rebus, Knots And Crosses (1987), intended to
be crime fiction?
For years I said it wasn’t – I said I was trying to update Jekyll And Hyde and bring it back to Edinburgh. But when I thought back on it, I’d met William Mcilvanney by then, and I’d read at least two of his Laidlaw [ crime] books. He was a literary novelist, so for me there was no distinction between literary fiction and crime fiction.
Were you influenced by writers like Agatha Christie?
When we were young my sister read Agatha Christie, but I tried it and didn’t like it. I didn’t get on with it, this kind of puzzle set in this world that meant absolutely nothing to me. When I did start to get into crime fiction, it was really the Americans: James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, James Crumley – anybody called James, basically. Lawrence Block’s Scudder novels were a huge influence on the Rebus books, and also on Cafferty as a character. So it was the kind of gritty, urban American stuff that I liked.
What was it like being a young crime writer in the ’80s?
Well, in Edinburgh I was the only postgraduate student writing crime fiction. There weren’t many crime writers around. But I moved down to London fairly soon after I’d finished the first Rebus book. My PHD money ran out in June ’86, we got married in July and moved to London in August. We lived in a two-bedroom flat in Tottenham. At first my wife was supporting me – she was a civil servant – while I tried to be a full-time writer. When the days were loose and baggy, all I did was watch horror videos from Blockbuster. Then I got a job working on a hi-fi magazine.
Did working as a journalist help with writing fiction?
The one thing it does seem to help you with is deadlines. And it helps if crime fiction is written quickly, because it injects pace. My first drafts still take between 30 and 40 days.
Is it true that Rather Be The Devil took just 27 days?
Yeah. We’ve got a house in Cromarty in the far north of Scotland – there’s no wi-fi, no mobile phone signal, no TV – and I did the
I didn’t like Christie, but the gritty, urban American stuff
first 100 pages in 10 days. So by then, you know if it’s going to work or not. But the first draft’s the easy bit. A lot of readers have this notion with crime fiction that you start at the end and work backwards. But so many writers make it up as we go along – we know as little as our characters. And I love that uncertainty: the only way I’m going to find out what’s going to happen is by writing the book.
Rebus cuts out the booze and fags in this book. Did you join him?
No. That’s a good point, method writing! I’ve never smoked, so that wasn’t a hardship. I was drinking throughout the writing of the book. It’s just one of these things. He’s in his mid-60s. He doesn’t look after himself, he eats all the wrong stuff, he smokes, he drinks – his luck’s going to run out. So I sat down with this doctor and we came up with COPD [ Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a lung condition] as being something he would probably be a shoo-in for at his stage in his life.
He’s quite a tough pensioner, though, isn’t he?
Yeah, he’s army, SAS, he’s got a pretty iron constitution. But in the book before this he almost gets in a fight with [ fellow detective] Malcolm Fox. He sizes it up and goes “shit, I might lose”. He can’t fight if he thinks he’ll lose. So he can’t do it any more. He’s a different character from the character we met 30 years ago. He’s got to use his wits and guile to get the results that he used to get through intimidation.
In the new book, Rebus actually reminisces with serial confessor Craw Shand, a character he beat up 20 years ago in Black And Blue.
Yeah, they do. Craw wants a bit of rough and tumble, and Rebus goes, “We don’t do that any more”. In fact, Black And Blue was the one time a friend of mine who’s in the police got really annoyed with me. He was a huge help to me in the early days, but he wasn’t happy about that scene in Black And Blue where Rebus shoves Craw Shand off a chair in the interview room. He felt that’s not what the police would do in the ’90s.
Black And Blue was a breakthrough book, wasn’t it?
It was a breakthrough in that it won the Gold Dagger, and that convinced my publishers I knew what I was doing, because up until then I wasn’t selling many books. It still didn’t hit the top 10. I think the next book, The Hanging Garden, got one week at number 10. So I was selling more but not enough to be a superstar, or even close – it was a slow, steady build. In fact, in the States it was only when I
brought Rebus back in Standing In Another Man’s Grave, in 2012, that I got my first New York Times bestseller after 20-odd years in the game.
Early in your career you were writing standalones and thrillers under the pseudonym Jack Harvey, as well as the Rebus series. Was there a plan?
There was never a plan, I never had any notion that the series was going to go on as long as it did. And when I retired Rebus the first time around when he hit 60, which was mandatory retirement age, I thought that was it – Rebus is gone. But then I got an idea for a cold case, and there’s a cold case unit in Edinburgh staffed by retired cops. So that was Rebus, and he was so thrilled to be back. But I was nervous. I wasn’t sure his voice would still be there.
In the latest book, you write about Police Scotland and the Scottish Crime Campus at Gartcosh. Do you have sources within this new set-up?
Yeah, I’ve been there, I visited Gartcosh. There were four of us Scottish crime writers – Chris Brookmyre, Lin Anderson, Alex Gray and me. We got to meet the deputy chiefs, they showed us behind the scenes, it was absolutely fascinating. It meant that it was fresh in my mind when I wrote those scenes. I just liked the idea of taking Malcolm Fox there, this notion of promoting mediocrity. So Siobhan Clarke will be pissed off, and he’d be embarrassed because she should have been the one to get promoted.
Rebus was on his way out when Police Scotland was created in 2013. He wouldn’t fit in this modern, tech-savvy police force, would he?
Oh, he wouldn’t fit in at all. Rebus would be against it because he doesn’t like change. But someone like Siobhan, in the real world, wouldn’t be in charge of a murder inquiry any more. So just think of that: if you’re a real-life CID cop and suddenly the structure is changed, you’re not going to get the big juicy cases. That changes your whole mood. They parachute this team in from somewhere else and suddenly they’re in charge, but they don’t know the city, they have the local cops as liaison. It’s not a comfortable relationship, so even before you’ve started the plot you’ve got tension and drama.
Do Cafferty and Rebus both have disdain for this slick new kind of policing operation?
Well, they’ve got a disdain for everything. At the end of the previous book [ Even Dogs In The Wild], Cafferty walks away holding up one finger to tell Rebus he’s got one good fight left in him. This book is the story of that one good fight – is Cafferty really going to let go of the city and let Darryl Christie, the young, venal gangster, take over? Cafferty’s like Rebus, he’s a dinosaur, he’s the last of his kind. So there’s that empathy between him and Rebus.
Do Rebus and Cafferty need each other?
Yeah, they do, they’ve got this kind of umbilical cord between them. They’re like Cain and Abel, they’re like Jekyll and Hyde, they’re like Holmes and Moriarty, they’re like the Gallagher brothers in Oasis. They’re kind of warring brothers, I guess.
And is it right that you live in Cafferty’s house, as described in the books?
Yeah, I do – no, he lives in mine! Yeah, maybe that’s why I’ve moved him out [ in Rather Be The Devil], because there was a woman who came up to me in a supermarket a couple of years ago near where I lived and said, “I don’t like it that Cafferty lives in my street”. You know we had a spate of break-ins a while ago and mine wasn’t touched. I think it’s because the criminals in Edinburgh think that’s where Cafferty lives.
Why can’t Rebus walk away when he comes across this latest cold case – a
murder at the Caledonian Hotel in 1978?
He’s a born detective, isn’t he? He needs it. It’s how he deals with the world, looking into other people’s problems to stop him looking at his own. The cold case comes up because he’s out for a meal with his girlfriend [ pathologist Deborah Quant] and he’s telling her an anecdote. Then he thinks: I remember getting kicked off that case and I wasn’t happy about it. So he dusts it off, has a wee look and he starts to see resonances with what’s happening in the present day.
He can’t give it up, it’s in his blood, and without it he almost ceases to exist. Yeah, there’s a lot of melancholy, these are kind of late-period books for him. Mortality is knocking at the door, and he’s not sure how much longer he’s got, and he’s not sure what he can do – what unfinished business is there, I guess.
Do you think about killing Rebus off?
When I start a book I do wonder: is he going to be alive at the end? So far the answer has always been yes. But then you think: is there another book after that one? I don’t know. As I sit here, I have no idea. I’m supposed to take a year off and celebrate 30 years of Rebus but not write a new book. But if I got a great idea, I’d probably have to sit down and write it.
You seemed revitalised when you had a year off after writing Saints Of The Shadow Bible (2013).
Yeah, that was useful. As I’ve got older, I’ve not got the same juice I had when I was a young man. It doesn’t take longer to write the books but it takes longer to get up the energy levels for writing a book. The problem with doing a book a year is that you don’t get any time to think, because you’re either writing the book or promoting the book. The books are often written in a panic – I’m up against a deadline and I’ve got nothing. So the adrenaline starts running and then you get a story.
Having a year off means you can actually think: what have I not done yet that I’d like to do? You get some time to breathe and think about the characters in more depth. I just love the relationships, the way that Siobhan, Fox, Rebus, Cafferty, Deborah Quant and the other characters dance around each other. But one of them might leave the dance floor for a while. I could maybe concentrate on Fox and Siobhan in the next book; or I could go back in time and write about Rebus’ early days.
You wrote Malcolm Fox novels after retiring Rebus in 2007. Do you prefer Fox in a supporting role?
Yeah, that’s where belongs. He’s not a man of action, he’s not the protagonist. I think he’s much more like me than Rebus. Put Siobhan and Malcolm in a blender and you’ll get me. You wouldn’t get anything like Rebus. The two of them are much more my kind of liberal view of the world, whereas for Rebus everything’s black and white, good and evil, no middle ground. Doesn’t suffer fools gladly, apolitical, physical rather than cerebral. Yeah, he’s not me, but it’s fun hanging out with him because of that.
Have you still not watched the Rebus TV series starring Ken Stott?
I’ve never watched them. Probably when I retired Rebus [ in Exit Music], I should have then watched it. Because what I said was, as long as I’m writing the books I’m not going to get an actor’s voice and actions, his mannerisms, stuck in my head.
Finally, how will you celebrate 30 years since Knots And Crosses in March 1987?
I’ll probably celebrate the same way I celebrated when I wrote the ‘final’ Rebus book, Exit Music – I’ll go to the pub and have a pint.
Rather Be The Devil (Orion) is out now. Rebusfest takes place in Edinburgh on 30 June to 2 July. Ian Rankin will appear at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival on 22 July.
Ianrankin with fellow Scottish author the late Williammcilvanney, at Harrogate Crime Festival.
Rebus (Ken Stott) and DS Siobhan Clarke (Claire Price).
Rankin on set for his cameo in 2006 Rebus episode “The Falls”.
Rather Be The Devil is the 21str ebus and sixth Malcolm Fox novel.