Author Interview: Ian Rankin on Rebus and making crime pay

This is a reprint of a feature I did last year for the Sunday Business Post Agenda section – it’s the first of the blog posts from the old blog I’ll be importing here – laboriously by hand. Anyway, enjoy . . .

Rankin, Rebus and making crime pay

(Published Sunday, November 06, 2005. By Alex Meehan)

Described by the legendary detective writer James Ellroy as the “King of Tartan Noir”, Ian Rankin is about as well-known as modern fiction writers get. His first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, was published in 1987 and the Rebus books have now been translated into 22 languages. His books adorn the shelves of almost every bookshop in the western world, and when it comes to crime fiction, only a handful of writers have matched his success.

This, however, comes as something of a surprise to Rankin himself. “I didn’t start out trying to be a crime writer – I got good at it by accident’‘, he says.

We are discussing Rankin’s first novel, The Flood, which has just been re-released almost 20 years after its first appearance. He’s nervous about it, as the novel is a far cry from the Inspector Rebus series for which he is primarily known.

“I’m waiting for the backlash to come; this book is a great chance for reviewers who don’t like my work to give me a good kicking.

“It’s a young man’s book – I wrote it when I was 23. I was still at university and I was in love with words. I was using as many words as I possibly could,” he says. The Flood is being republished in response to requests from fans.

Originally released with a print run of just 800 copies, it’s a dark coming of age tale set in a small Scottish mining community similar to the one in which Rankin grew up. It is gothic in its outlook, atmospheric, and it taught its author more than a few lessons about the craft of writing.

Rankin admits he would like to rewrite certain parts of The Flood, but has resisted the temptation because “once you start, where do you finish? No book is ever quite finished, you just hand it over when it’s good enough.

“With The Flood, almost as soon as it was published back in 1986 I thought of a better ending.

“It will be interesting to see what people think of it because it’s not Rebus, but one reviewer has already said that they could see the seeds of the Rebus novels in there.” This isn’t too much of a leap. The Rebus novels are dark and gritty, set in the world of a middle-aged Scottish detective.

Rebus himself works in the underbelly of society and it’s not a shiny happy place. The Flood is not a shiny happy novel, and is the more interesting for it.

“I got into a lot of trouble for The Flood, because it was basically set in my home town and some of the residents didn’t like some of the stuff I said about it,” says Rankin.

Rankin grew up in the coal mining town of Cardenden in the Kingdom of Fife, and in The Flood refers to the fictional town of Carsden – a close-minded and suspicious place. His neighbours were not fooled, and it was this experience which prompted him to invent a character and a world he could write about without fear of a backlash. The result was Inspector Rebus and the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses.

“The idea for the first Rebus book came to me while I was sitting in my bedsit. The plot almost wrote itself and Rebus was born almost fully formed,” he says. Rebus – the word means picture puzzle – is an icon of the crime fiction genre, with some 20 novels devoted to him.

Far from being concerned about being pigeonholed as a crime writer, Rankin is enthusiastic about the genre.

“I don’t mind being known as a crime writer, because I think crime writers are doing some of the most interesting work on the novel just now. I would much rather read a crime writer writing about contemporary life than I would one of the Booker prize nominees, for example,” he says.

“If you want to engage with the world, if you want to talk about the problems we have in society, you go to the crime novel and that’s always been the case, from Dostoevsky to Dickens to Raymond Chandler. Crime writing has its own rules and conventions, but they are there to be broken. The mystery element of my books is probably the thing that interests me least. What I like about crime fiction is what it tells you about the world you live in.”

As well as re-releasing The Flood, Rankin has branched out with the publication of the coffee-table-style book, Rebus’ Scotland.

“It started out as a picture book with some captions, but the captions got bigger and it seemed like a good chance to tell some of the story behind Rebus and his world, explain some of the in-jokes and show how the characters in the book were formed,” he says.

“It’s partly an autobiography, but it is also an opportunity for me to say that, although I paint a fairly bleak picture of contemporary Scotland in the books, that’s because I’m writing crime fiction; I don’t necessarily think it’s as dark as it seems. I sometimes get e-mails from people in Glasgow and Aberdeen saying ‘Why do you hate our city?’, and I have to write back saying I don’t – Rebus hates your city, it’s a different thing.”

To keep the Rebus books fresh and engaging for himself, Rankin also makes a point of using them to explore aspects of modern life. “Usually the books begin with some big question I am asking myself. In Fleshmarket Close, I was thinking of Scottish identity – who are the Scots? We primarily define ourselves by the fact that we are not English, but then what are we and what makes us different exactly?

“While I was thinking about these questions, an asylum seeker was murdered in Glasgow in a race crime. I thought, if I move that murder to Edinburgh, I can investigate that whole question through a book,” he says.

By necessity, crime writers must routinely place themselves in the minds of murderers, rapists and psychotics; for most people this would present something of a challenge, but not for Rankin.

“All writers write as a form of therapy and I think crime writers specifically would be dangerous individuals if we didn’t have this outlet,” he jokes. “Because we get it all out, we are all actually well balanced and fun to be around. I think the ones you have to watch out for are the writers who do romantic fiction – they can’t get any of their dark stuff down on paper and have to bottle it up. I’ve definitely used Rebus as a punch bag though, where I have given my personal problems directly to him.”

The next Rebus novel hasn’t been written, but Rankin already knows what it will be about. “The G8 was such a big thing in Scotland and especially so in Edinburgh, where the population is just 400,000, but 250,000 people marched through the streets. It affected every policeman in Edinburgh. I thought there’s no way I can write a contemporary crime thriller set in Edinburgh and not mention it, so that’s where we are going next.”

After this, the future is less certain. The Inspector Rebus novels are written in real time and with the eponymous main character now aged 58, the end is in sight. Police officers retire at 60 in Scotland, so he has just two years left.

“He has two more books and then that’s it; either he dies or he has a happy retirement, we’ll have to wait and see’‘, says Rankin.

Where does this leave Rankin as a writer, and is he looking forward to being free of the series, to being able to write about other things in other genres?

“I’m not looking forward to killing him off in that sense at all. He has a younger sidekick, Siobhan, who might continue the series.

“From time to time, Rebus could be a consulting detective like Sherlock Holmes.

“Outside the series, I don’t know. I recently heard JK Rowling say that when she finishes the Harry Potter series, she’s going to write a crime novel, so perhaps we could swap? I could write Harry Potter and she could write a Rebus novel.”

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