Original interview with Ian Rankin on the publication of A Question of Blood and the re-issue of Watchman.
Not many punk rockers will tell you it was a copper that made them what they are today, but bestselling British author Ian Rankin is an exception to this rule. He owes his livelihood to one Detective Inspector John Rebus, a hard-nosed Edinburgh cop who works on instinct, plays by his own rules, and is the central character of Rankin’s novels.
With 23 books, sales well into the millions, and the 1997 Crime Writers’ Association Macallan Gold Dagger (the Oscar equivalent for crime fiction) for Black and Blue, under his belt, Rankin has come a long way from his childhood in a coal mining town in East-Central Scotland. In his first Thailand interview, the author tells New Arrivals of his long struggle for success. He explains how he created and developed Rebus’ character to portray the realities of contemporary Scotland, and discusses his latest books, A Question Of Blood and Watchman.
From an early age, reading and writing played an important part in Rankin’s life. First and foremost as a source of inspiration and escapism. “Reading helps nourish your mind and develop the intellect. It helps take you to other places,” he says. “I grew up in a place that didn’t have much hope about it. There wasn’t much happening in the economy, the shops were all closing down, but I could escape inside my head.
“I could become a pop star when I was writing song lyrics, and I could become a superhero by drawing cartoons. I could become anything I wanted to be. The problem with is that sometimes society tries to knock that creative stuff out of you. You’re told to stop, get a job, get married and die. I think that reading is part of the process of staying young.”
In his youth writing was a passion kept close to his chest, hidden behind the closed doors of his bedroom. It was only in the final year of school that he let the cat out of the bag.
“I came second in a national poetry competition. That was the first inkling that any of my classmates or teachers or my parents got that I was actually writing,” he says. “It was a bit embarrassing really, it wasn’t the sort of thing you were supposed to do with my background.”
Not one to be put off by such things, he moved to Edinburgh in 1978 to study English at university, and found instant satisfaction in his choice.
“It was such an exciting place to be, because you were surrounded by writers, people who wanted to be writers, and people who were excited by literature,” he says.
Music is Rankin’s other passion, and his knowledge of it is evident in the eclectic tastes of the characters he creates. This, combined with his natural flair for writing, didn’t translate into successful musical accomplishments of his own though.
“I was in a punk band for about six months, and we were about the second worst punk band you’d ever seen. I was on vocals. I didn’t actually play an instrument, and singing would be putting it too strongly,” he laughs.
Putting music aside, Rankin focussed on his studies and, after graduation, took up a PhD on Edinburgh writer Muriel Spark, author of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. At this time Rankin had started writing his own fiction and after two years of research found himself in a quandary.
“I asked myself, ‘What would she [Spark] want?’ Would she want just another little red thesis that would sit in a dusty library, or would she want me to write books?”
Opting for the latter, he ditched his studies and penned three novels in three years. The first, a dark comedy set in a Scottish hotel was never published. The second, The Flood, a story about his background, was printed by a local publisher. An agent who picked up one of the few hundred copies sought Rankin out and landed him a contract with a London publisher for his third book Knots and Crosses, marking the arrival of Rebus.
With this Rankin took the first steps on a long road to literary success that would eventually place him alongside the likes of Iain Banks and Irving Welsh, as one of Scotland’s leading contemporary authors.
Back then the wheels of the gravy train were turning rather slowly. “I had one of the longest apprenticeships in fiction,” he says, adding that it took a number of years and five or six Rebus books before he started earning a crust.
Despite years on the breadline, being supported by his wife while he tried to balance a career as an author with fathering a young family, Rankin has done all right. A darling of the British fiction scene, he is on numerous web and radio interviews and Rebus is now a popular television character.
His new home in South Edinburgh, where authors JK Rowling and Alexander McCall Smith are neighbours, is a testament to this success. But he tries to keep his feet firmly on the ground, taking joy in the fact that the success of Scottish authors like himself provides an inspiriation for a new generation.
“There’s a new generation of Scottish writers who have seen through people like me, that you can actually earn a living from writing. The also realise they don’t have to write like Muriel Spark or Irving Welsh. My next door neighbour [McCall Smith] writes crime fiction set in Botswana.”
Today, 13 novels on and 15 years older, Rebus has developed too. He still lives in the same flat in Arden Street that he did in the beginning, and readers have become attuned to the foibles of a cop who doesn’t mind riding roughshod over other peoples emotions in order to get what he wants. Each novel sheds more light on the unknown areas of his life, and at the same time, his friend and colleague, Siobahn Clarke, becomes a stronger, more prominent feature in the novels.
“Rebus is a kind of dinosaur. He’s one of the old school of cops who worked by instinct and were given a free reign to investigate a case as they saw fit. He really feels that he is the last of a dying breed. He’s surrounded by people who are younger and university educated, people who know how to operate computers.”
“However, the things that make him a good detective make him a very bad social human being, because he investigates other people’s lives like a voyeur. He does that as a defence, because then he doesn’t have to look at the problems in his own life.
“But that’s just the kind of person he is and it makes him a very good cop because once he gets involved in a case he won’t give up until he’s worked it out. But a lot of his friends and family have been pushed away over the years because the job gets in the way.”
Even creating Rebus had its problems for Rankin. Wanting to learn more about the machinations of policework, he sought advice from Edinburgh’s chief constable and was told to visit a police station and talk to a couple of detectives. However, in a bizarre twist of fate, this made him the prime suspect in an ongoing investigation.
“The detectives asked what the book was about. I gave them the story which was about a kid being abducted. It turns out they were investigating the abduction of a child, so I became a suspect. They thought I’d come in with a spurious story and that I was the person who’d actualy done it.
“I was the only suspect for while. I was probably too young and naive to be worried, but they eventually got the guy for seven murders. I was glad I wasn’t fitted up for that one, but I’m probably still on file somewhere.”
Nowadays Rankin boasts a large number of the boys in blue as avid fans, and he’s more likely to be pulled over by police wanting an autograph than an arrest. He puts his popularity down to getting the office politics right. “There’s a lot of bitching and backstabbing,” he says. “It’s a real ‘us versus them’ mentality.”
However, Rankin says that the greatest compliment was from a copper who couldn’t read his books. “He said it was no fun reading my books, because it was too much like work. I was really pleased by that.”
While he doesn’t want to get too close to the police and have his books seem like a PR exercise for them, Rankin wants Rebus to be a believeable, realistic character. Compliments from the law enforcement profession reinforce that he has succeeded at this.
“I think they like the fact that Rebus isn’t some kind of superman who flies in, solves the case, then flies out again. The cases have repercussions for him.
“If you investigate a murder, it stays with you. You don’t bounce from one murder case to the next unchanged by what you do.”
Rebus also breaks through the stereotypes that Scotland is all about malt whiskey, tartan and bagpipes, and portrays a realistic, earthy view of modern day Edinburgh.
“What interested me was the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the place. The fact that to the casual visitor it was a place of tradition and culture.
“They’d come to Edinburgh and see the castles and museums, but they wouldn’t see the run down housing estates, or the problems of drugs, prostitution and crime rings.
“There was this other side to the city that people weren’t writing about in the days before Trainspotting. My plan was to show this side of Edinburgh, to look at a living breathing contemporary city with contemporary problems.”
While Rankin made Rebus’ address real, choosing the flat across the road from his student house, he did encounter problems from fictionalising parts of the city.
“I had to decide early on just how real the city was going to be. In the early books I fictionalised a lot of places. A lot of the bars and areas have fictional names and Rebus works in a fictional police station.
“After four or five books I decided to burn down his fictional police station and put him in a real one. The Oxford Bar [Rebus’ local in the books] came into it solely because that’s where I drank anyway,” he says, adding that he has been given a few free beers by the bar’s landlord ever since.
The early Rebus books were sold with the kicker “Unlikely to be recommended by the chief constable or the Tourist Board”. Rankin’s war to put Edinburgh on the map has paid off.
Far from complaining that the books portray a dark urban underbelly that damages the city’s image, the Tourist Board has come on-side and now runs ‘Rebus Tours’ — where fans can be guided around key sites and scenes from the book. Furthermore, the current chief constable has gone as far as putting in print that he could do “with one Rebus on the force”.
Both Rebus and Rankin have come a long way in the past 15 years or so. However, with Rebus only five years away from retirement, what will happen when he reaches 60?
“Rebus exists in real time,” says Rankin. “In book one he was 40, now he’s 55. In Scotland, police have to retire at the age of 60, but I don’t know what I’m going to do.
“I could end it all, I could carry on with Siobahn as the main character. I could stop the clock and carry on with Rebus, or go back and investigate his early years.”
While Rankin professes no “grand plan” for Rebus, he does admit to having a guiding principle for determining. whether it’s time to give the cop the chop. “I come to each new book and think, ‘Have I still got his voice in my head, have I got anything new to say about him or Scotland through him?’“If any of these cease to be the case, then it’s time to stop right there.”
A Question Of Blood
Tragedy strikes when ex-soldier Lee Herdman enters a local school, shoots two students dead, injures another, then turns the gun on himself. Rebus is intent on finding out why the murders took place, convinced that it wasn’t just another squaddie gone postal. He’s also dodging questions about why he just left hopsital with bandaged hands and the con who was stalking Siobahn Clarke turns up dead in a fire.
Rebus discovers he’s personally attached to the killings, and in unearthing Herdman’s past in the SAS, he’s haunted by his own army experiences — something the military investigators who turn up on the scene are happy to play on.
Rankin explains the motivation behind the novel. “A lot of soldiers came back from the first Gulf War changed men. Wife beaters, murderers, and some suicide cases. Part of the book is about this. How the army trains men to kill, and then sends them back home without switching them off.
“But I also had this general theme of outsiders and the periphery of society: teenagers who don’t want to fit in, they take the extremes just to be different; other people like these disaffected soldiers; and even Rebus himself. I wanted to look at how these people are viewed. ”
Welcome to the world of British intelligence officer Miles Flint in this fast-paced thriller originally penned by Rankin in 1986.
Flint operates as a surveillance officer for British intelligence. However, his life as a voyeur is drastically changed when a suspected assassin slips his net and knocks off an Israeli businessman.
Set amidst an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing campaign in London, our Scottish-born protagonist suspects foul play and makes his own investigations into the possibility of a mole or double agent. However, in the world of intelligence paranoia is the name of the game, and he himself is hauled in for questioning by his superiors. With each step Flint is further drawn into a dark conspiracy. One more operational cock-up lands him with a final chance to to redeem himself, taking him into the lion’s den itself — Northern Ireland.
“I was living in London when the bombings were going on. It was really quite terrifying, ” says Rankin. “But it provided the background for the story. “Flint is quite like a writer, insofar as he watches other people, records what they do, and writes it up in a report. It was really interesting transforming his life as a voyeur into something more active, and much more dangerous. ”
Originally published inAsia Books Magazine ,January 2004