‘It’s a long time to spend with someone you’ve never met,’ says Ian Rankin of his relationship with John Rebus, the maverick detective inspector whose fate he has been orchestrating for 30 years now. ‘A long time to have someone living in your head. We’re both very different to the people we used to be.’
Earlier this month, fans from all over the world descended on Edinburgh for the inaugural RebusFest, a weekend-long celebration of the city’s most famous hardboiled copper. For Rankin, who as a teenager fronted a punk band called The Dancing Pigs, headlining his own festival must have be quite a thrill?
‘Am I the headline act?’ ponders the 57-year-old. ‘I don’t know. The fans really want to meet Rebus, but unfortunately he doesn’t exist.’
Rankin created Rebus for his 1987 book Knots and Crosses – then promptly killed him off. ‘I didn’t read crime fiction at the time,’ he explains. ‘I had no idea you could write about the same character book after book. So in the first draft of the first book he was shot and killed. And then for some reason in the second draft I thought, “no that’s a bit cruel”. Which was fortuitous, because three books later my editor said, “Whatever happened to that guy Rebus”? Possibly it had something to do with the books I’d written in the meantime not selling very well.’
Born in the former Fife mining town of Cardenden in 1960, Rankin was the first of his family to go to university, horrifying his father, who ran a grocery shop before moving to the Rosyth Dockyard, and mother, a school canteen worker, by announcing his intention to study English literature.
‘My parents thought, “Ian’s the brainy one, he’s going to go to uni, he’s going to get a trade”,’ he says. ‘And up until I was 17 I was fairly focused on doing accountancy. I had an uncle who was an accountant, and he was the only person in our family who owned his own house and his own car. But at 17 I suddenly thought, “why am I doing this?” I wasn’t very good at economics. The one thing I was passionate about was reading and writing – was literature.’
After graduating, he worked as everything from a swineherd to a grape picker, and endured a miserable spell in the local tax office, before winning a grant from Edinburgh University to write a PhD on Muriel Spark. The PhD was never finished, but he used the time to write three novels (‘I think Muriel would have approved’). Rebus made his debut in the third of those books, setting an initially reluctant Rankin on the path to being a crime writer.
‘There was a writer I really respected in Edinburgh, Allan Massie,’ he recalls. ‘I said to him, “I seem to have become a crime writer by accident, while trying to write the great Scottish novel”. And he said, “You may never get the kudos or the literary prizes, but you might make some cash”. And as a working class kid, that was quite important to me – that I could actually make a living from doing this. Even then it took a long time, and quite a few books, before I was earning enough to live on. But in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t make it big right at the start, 'cos I’d probably have been totally insufferable. I’d have had the helicopter on the front lawn and a pinball machine in every room.’
Rebus did eventually bring his creator riches – and a fair few literary prizes too, not to mention an OBE. Rankin has now written close to 40 novels, more than half of them featuring his most famous creation, who was played by John Hannah and then Ken Stott in 13 TV adaptations. In total, his books have shifted around 30 million copies – but Rankin insists success hasn’t changed him.
‘I’m still the same guy who at 18 or 19 would be using his student grant to go to record shops and book shops,’ he says. ‘I still dress much the same as I dressed back then. I’ve got more money in my pocket but I still seem to spend it on the same things. As long as I’ve got the price of a pint of beer and a CD in my pocket, I’m quite happy. Yeah, I live in a nice big house and drive a nice car. But I feel I’ve worked for it.’
His latest novel, Rather Be the Devil, sees Rebus lured out of retirement (Rankin thought he’d written him out for good with 2007’s Exit Music, but sometimes you just can’t keep a good man down) and worrying away at a cold murder case murder like a dog with a bone, while also undergoing investigation for a shadow on his lung he has christened, with typical graveyard wit, ‘Hank Marvin’. ‘That was my wife,’ explains Rankin. ‘She’s been saying for years, with his lifestyle, Rebus needs to have something wrong with him – something to make him aware that mortality is sitting on his shoulder.’
Alongside the usual vivid cast of Auld Reekie crime kingpins and gangland villains, the book brings Rebus into conflict with a wealthy banking family, Rankin once again using the medium of the detective novel to shine a light into the murky corners of society – in this case, big money.
‘The best crime fiction looks at society from top to bottom,’ he says. ‘It looks at the mess we’re in, and asks moral questions about good and evil. There are all kinds of reasons why people do bad things, so the nature of evil is a really hard question to answer. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep asking it.’
Rankin doesn’t reckon he’d make much of a detective himself (‘When I read crime fiction, I never work out what’s going on until the end’) but does see certain similarities with his own trade. ‘We’re both going through life looking for the answers to big questions, and trying to find out what the hell’s going on.
‘When I start a novel, I don’t know what’s happening, or where the story’s going to go, or who the murderer is,’ he adds. ‘So at that point I really am the detective – I’m trying to work out what’s going on. Usually by the end of the first draft I’ve worked out whodunit and why. But very occasionally it’s not 'til the second draft.’
How much of Rebus is him? ‘About 30%,’ he says, listing The Oxford Bar – the Edinburgh haunt where both men drink, and where Rankin receives much of his mail – a shared love of music, and the fact they’re both ‘a bit of a loner’. ‘He likes to hang out in his living room late at night listening to records, and just pondering, musing – that’s me,’ he admits. ‘Going for long nighttime drives through the streets of Edinburgh – that’s me. We both come from the same village, both went to the same school. But there’s a lot of Rebus that isn’t me. He’s much more of an Old Testament guy – he wants to bring down people who are guilty of the seven deadly sins, whereas I’m a bit of a wishy-washy liberal.’
Rankin met his wife Miranda at university, and they have two grown-up sons, the youngest of whom, Kit, has severe learning difficulties as a result of Angelman syndrome, a rare neuro-genetic disorder. They live in the well-heeled Edinburgh suburb of Merchiston, and count several other bestselling novelists among their near neighbours. ‘Alexander McCall Smith lives two houses away, and Kate Atkinson’s about half a mile away,’ says Rankin. ‘JK Rowling moved across town a couple of years ago, but there were occasions before that when we’d all be in the same café, having breakfast and a chat. Just general chat – it wasn’t like the Bloomsbury set.’
At the start of each new book, the author takes himself off to his remote Highland bolthole in Cromarty and spends several weeks writing in splendid isolation. ‘It has no internet, no phone signal, no TV,’ he says. ‘It’s a great place to clear my head. If I get stuck I just go for a walk along the waterfront, and the North Sea wind blows away all the cobwebs.’
By his own admission, Rankin is ‘a worrier’. ‘I wouldn’t say I’m naturally happy,’ he says. ‘I fret a lot. I always think about what could go wrong, not what could go right. But a lot of writers are like that, and writing is a way of dealing with it, that keeps us quite well balanced in our day-to-day lives. If we didn’t write this stuff down,’ he adds, thoughtfully, ‘we’d be monsters.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, July 13, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend