Not everything is black and white, says Ian Rankin, whose Inspector Rebus novels have been exercising our grey matter for three decades
How, I ask Ian Rankin, does he describe himself at a dinner party? ‘ At a dinner party?’ he repeats mildly. ‘A writer, probably. And if pressed I would say a crime writer, and if pressed I would say a Scottish crime writer, and that would about do it.’
Having sold tens of millions of books worldwide, the majority concerning his detective John Rebus, Rankin illustrates his gift of frugal understatement in his reply. Readers might recognise it from this prose. ‘I never meant to be a crime writer,’ he explains. ‘It just happened. I didn’t read crime fiction when I was young. I didn’t study crime fiction at university. This guy Rebus just arrived and he was in one not-at-all successful novel, but he stuck around. So by accident I became a crime writer, partly while trying to write the great Scottish novel.’
We’re in the sitting room of his small one-bedroom flat in central Edinburgh, which serves as his office – as well as a repository for books and Rebus-related memorabilia (Rankin’s OBE is in the bathroom cabinet). It also houses his record collection.
On the subject of great Scottish novels, an important influence on him is Muriel Spark, best known for her 1961 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Rankin says he was obsessed with the way she showed ‘Edinburgh as a place where on the surface everything was hunky dory, but underneath were all these fears and tensions and this darker side’. Spark’s Miss Brodie was descended from a notorious 18th-century criminal, William Brodie, a respectable cabinetmaker by day and burglar by night.
This real-life Brodie also inspired Robert Louis Stevenson in the creation of Jekyll and Hyde: as a boy, Stevenson had a wardrobe made by Brodie.
‘The nursemaid would tell him this story of the man who was good and evil contained in the same person,’ says Rankin. ‘And that just clicked with me. I thought, “Edinburgh’s still like that, Edinburgh’s still a city that has light and shade, where there’s the potential for terrible things to happen just below the surface.” That was where Rebus came from – a character who allowed me to explore both sides of the city, someone who would have access to the light and the dark, the Jekyll and the Hyde. And,’ Rankin breaks into a light chuckle, ‘he just refused to leave. Once I’d invented him he just refused to go away.’
Rankin has turned 60 this year. He grew up in Fife, the only child of a couple in their forties, and had two older half-sisters. ‘As a kid I wrote strip cartoons, tried to write comics, wrote stories, poems, song lyrics; I was always reading and always writing. It was an escape from what was a fairly mundane existence in a small village in Fife. I just sat in my bedroom about the same size as we’re sitting in now and explored worlds. I could be a spaceman, I could be in a foreign country. I could be a spy… It was always a form of escape. A little bit later on I realised you could use writing as a form of asking questions about the world and making sense of the world.’
After school, he was ‘supposed to study accountancy’ at university because he had an uncle in Bradford who was an accountant had his own house and car. ‘He was almost the only person we knew in the family who had both of those,’ says Rankin. But he had an ‘epiphany at 17 while visiting my sister in Cambridge’ and decided to study English instead. His parents wanted to know what job it would lead to. ‘“I’ll teach,”’ he told them. ‘I don’t think that was going to keep them in the lifestyle to which they were hoping to become accustomed.’
He pauses. ‘It worked out well in the end, though.’ Has success changed him? ‘Yep,’ he volunteers cheerfully. ‘It’s materially changed me. When I started out I was living in a council house in Fife. Money was tight for a long time.’ It’s a cliché for a working-class boy made good, he says: ‘But I respect money because of that, because more than half my life I didn’t have any.’
He says he still dresses in the same clothes as when he was a student and describes his greatest extravagance as a Breitling watch, a gift from his wife. ‘But I’ve put a lot away for pension, for both my sons, we’ve given a lot of money to charity; we’ve got a charitable trust that doesn’t feature our names so nobody knows it’s us.’ (The Herald reported that he gave £425,000 of his earnings to charity in 2017.)
Back in 1980, while reading English at Edinburgh, Rankin started meeting poets and writers through student societies and realising that life could be different. He secured funding to write a PhD on Muriel Spark, ‘then spent the next three years writing novels’. His first, a comedy, never saw the light of day. His second, The Flood, was published by an independent in Edinburgh. Then an inspector called, or rather, a detective sergeant. John Rebus arrived in Rankin’s mind on the very day he signed the contract for The Flood.
‘That evening I went back to my digs in Marchmont, the same street that Rebus lives on, and I was sitting in the living room staring at the gas fire and I just got the idea that somebody’s playing a game with this guy by sending him cryptic messages. I got a piece of paper and I just wrote on it – it’s like a game of noughts and crosses, and it’s somebody from the person’s past. And then I said the main character might be a cop and the person playing the game with them is a villain from his past. And that was 1985.’
Eighth time lucky
The first Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses, was published in 1987. Sequels followed, but the taciturn detective wasn’t an overnight hit. It wasn’t until Black and Blue, the eighth novel in the series in 1997, that the tide turned. And partly this is why it remains Rankin’s most cherished Rebus book.
‘It was the first of the properly good Rebus novels,’ he says. ‘The previous books had been leading up to it; I’d been getting to know the characters, been stretching myself: what you can and can’t do with a crime novel, bringing in bigger themes and more complex plotting. It was just an altogether bigger book.’
He pauses. ‘It was also written at a time when my younger son was being diagnosed with special needs and I was just full of frustration and rage and questions, and I channelled that into the book, so it was an angry book. It made it a better book, a deeper book.’
This strikes another thought as he gazes over at the mass of vinyl: ‘And before that we were struggling, financially we were struggling, sales-wise we were struggling.’ Black and Blue got a new cover, he recalls. ‘It looked a bit more classy – it didn’t look like a crime novel per se, it looked like a literary novel, and it won the Gold Dagger for best crime novel published that year, and that gave me the confidence to keep going. And it gave my publishers the confidence to stick with me. So although Black and Blue didn’t sell in huge quantities, suddenly people were aware of who I was, and all of that helped to push the books into the top ten. So, it was a very important book.’ He concludes: ‘I’ve not read it in years. Maybe I should.’
With his big birthday this year, I ask if he’ll ever retire. ‘I’ve got no plans to retire,’ he says. ‘But I’ve certainly got plans to slow down and I’ve got no ideas for future books.’ He smiles. ‘If the good Lord spares me, there may be more.’
But what of Rebus? Given the booze and cigarettes, he can’t have much more than ten years left, I wonder. ‘You can go back in time and do the early years,’ Rankin says by reply. ‘Somebody else might want to do it after I’m dead.’ Having spent such a long period of his life writing about bad people, does he ever get bored of evil? Not yet. ‘Evil characters in literature and film are much more interesting than the good people. Hannibal Lecter is much more interesting than Clarice Starling. I wouldn’t want to hang out with him, but you’re absolutely fascinated when you’re in the room with him.’
This sparks a thought. ‘I’ve been in plenty of prisons and met plenty of people who have done bad things,’ Rankin says, ‘but I believe, unlike Rebus, to a large extent that people can be rehabilitated. Rebus sees the world in black and white – in terms of good and evil. And I think there are grey areas, and the possibility of change. He’s less willing. That’s one of the conversations I have with him, constantly.’
Next I broach the topic of ‘crime fiction’. Rankin mentioned that he had been trying to write the Great Scottish novel. What about Rebus? Is he literature? ‘That’s up to other people to decide,’ Rankin declares.
But then he says this: ‘The landscape has changed. Crime fiction is still reviewed in the press as a subsidiary, it gets its own little column in the newspapers, but in universities you can now study crime fiction. I know students who have done their MLitt or PhDs on my novels. Some high schools now, you can study Rebus.’ His own papers and letters are now in the National Archives of Scotland. So things have changed: ‘And that’s because the writers who are attracted to crime fiction are writers who a generation ago might have wanted to be literary novelists but they don’t see the crime novel as a lesser form. And I don’t think it is necessarily a lesser form, it’s a different form.’
You can still take on ‘big moral themes, big questions’, he says: ‘You can create convincing characters and you can create a fantastic sense of place. Every Rebus novel is a piece of the jigsaw that, once this series is complete, will hopefully show you modern Edinburgh – and modern Scotland by extrapolation – at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. So that will be my novel. It will be like A Dance to the Music of Time.’
Is there anything he still wants to achieve as a writer? ‘If you’d asked me that even a couple of years ago, I’d have said I want a number-one New York Times bestseller.’ He’s been a bestseller in the US but never been higher than ten, he says. ‘I don’t think I can do it now. I’d have to write a different kind of book. I don’t think I could do it with a Rebus novel.’ Couldn’t Rebus go to New York? ‘No, he’s not got a passport. He doesn’t even go to England.’
Does he measure himself against the pantheon of fictional detectives – against Holmes, Poirot, Morse? ‘Who knows?’ he says. ‘In the future I might become completely forgotten about. Might be rediscovered, might be part of the pantheon… it’s a nice game to play.’ He recalls a Times top 50 that had Rebus at number five. ‘I’m very happy that the books are being read now and I would be delighted to think that they’ll be read after my death, but I can’t know that.’
Our conversation takes place against the backdrop of Covid-19 and the lockdown. As a writer, Rankin says he’s ‘prone to be socially isolated anyway’. ‘I find writing a useful escape from the real world – always have,’ he says. ‘This virus shows us how fragile we are and how connected we are – a message novelists have been exploring since the birth of the novel.’
Photography by David Harrison
This piece first appears in issue 75 of Spear’s magazine, out now. Click here to buy the latest issue and subscribe
Read more from the issue: