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

Crime Scene - - CONTENTS - BY AN­DRE PAINE

“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.

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