Ian Rankin: The Man Behind Rebus

His tales of crimes committed and solved are gripping, but his real subject is Edinburgh

By Peter Feniak

Photo: Hachette Book Group Canada.

It’s getting warm up here,” says Ian Rankin, standing beneath the stage lights of a sold-out Toronto theatre. To the mock horror of his interviewer, fellow crime writer Linwood Barclay, the Scottish novelist peels off his sweater to reveal a black T-shirt emblazoned with the word “CANADA” in big red capital letters. The audience bursts into cheers. Rankin grins and raises a glass to his fans.

Rankin’s October appearance during Toronto’s International Festival of Authors kicked off a Canadian tour to launch In a House of Lies (Orion, 2018), the 23rd of his Edinburgh-set Inspector Rebus crime novels. Canada has long been a Rankin stronghold. Worldwide, his much-heralded novels have reached 60 million copies sold and been translated into 26 languages. Among writers of crime fiction, this lean, dark-eyed Scot is something special, an author who regularly raises the genre to a high level. We met in Toronto the day after his stage appearance.

As the latest novel begins, four schoolboys discover a rusting Volkswagen hidden beneath leaves and branches in a deep forest gully. When police find a decomposed, manacled body in the trunk, a missing-person cold case is suddenly a murder. What follows, wrote Britain’s Elly Griffiths, is “tense, twisty…very funny…a real joy.” The book quickly rose to No. 1 on London’s The Sunday Times fiction bestseller list.

Raised in a small village and born to a family of modest means, Rankin has learned to accept compliments and honours, including the Diamond Dagger, for lifetime achievement, from the UK’s Crime Writers’ Association and an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), “for services to literature.” Nevertheless, he insists that he’s “the laziest hard-working writer I know.”

A youthful 58, Rankin says he wants to slow down, to ease the pressure to produce. “What do I do when I’m not writing?” He smiles. “I’m sitting with the newspaper, I’m doing the crossword, I’m doing the Sudoku, I’m going to the pub, I’m organizing stuff, I’m just hanging out. I’m essentially pretty lazy. When the deadline is looming, then the panic sets in. And when the panic sets in, the adrenaline gets going, the antennae start twitching, and you find the story—or the story finds you.”

Introducing DS Rebus
He was a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh when the idea for a crime-fiction story found him. He had written poetry and some stories, had one novel rejected and another—The Flood (Polygon, 1985)—published to little response. Unexpectedly, a new idea seized him. He wrote in his journal that night, “It’s happened. An idea for a novel (crime thriller) has blossomed into a whole plot…it’s all there in my head.”

The result was Knots and Crosses (Bodley Head, 1987), the first appearance of the irascible Detective Sergeant (DS, later Detective Inspector) John Rebus of the Edinburgh Police. The book set Rankin on a new course.

“It was meant to be a one-off,” Rankin says. “I didn’t really know Rebus then.” But author and detective were close from the start. In a later edition of Knots and Crosses, Rankin wrote, “I started writing on an electric typewriter at the table by the window. I stared from that window to the tenement opposite, and decided Rebus would live there…at 24 Arden Street.”

Rebus wasn’t an instant sensation, Rankin wrote, “but that would change.” The character eventually grew so popular that Edinburgh now offers Rebus Tours, taking fans to favoured haunts mentioned in the novels, such as The Oxford Bar on Young Street in New Town, which Rebus and Rankin also frequent.

Today, fans everywhere know the crusty, contrarian, slightly out-of-control Rebus, a man with a mysterious past in the SAS, the British special forces unit. Rebus is keenly aware of his city and its criminal underground—witness his strange bond with the crime boss “Big Ger” Cafferty. Arminta Wallace of The Irish Times hailed the detective for “his love of a wee dram, his distrust of authority, his bizarre conversations with barmen, and his habit of falling asleep in his armchair looking out over Edinburgh.” Readers love his tenacity, prickliness, and quick wit. And unlike many central characters of crime fiction, Inspector Rebus has been allowed to age.

“I wanted to write about how Edinburgh was changing—socially, politically, economically—and the way Scotland was changing,” Rankin explains. “I thought, How can you show things changing over time if your detective’s the same in every book? I made a decision early on that he would live more or less in real time—problematic when you’ve made him 40 in Book One. I had no idea he was going to stick around this long! Sixty is retirement age for detectives in Scotland, so he retired at 60 at the end of Exit Music, the 17th book. And after five years, I found a way to bring him back—as a civilian working for the police.”

Rebus no longer chain-smokes, he rations “the drink,” and he gets winded climbing stairs (he has COPD). “But he’s a detective to his very bones,” Rankin says, “now almost like a private detective. He doesn’t have to obey the rules, ’cause he’s not a cop. He can do whatever the hell he wants. But he doesn’t have the physical heft he had when he was younger; he doesn’t enjoy getting into fights anymore.”

Exploring the Grey Areas
Scotland’s storytelling tradition ranges from Sir Walter Scott to Edinburgh’s Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde inspired Knots and Crosses) to the brilliant ribaldry of Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. Growing up, Rankin wrote stories in secret in Cardenden, a “little coal-mining village” in the region north of Edinburgh called The Kingdom of Fife. Early on, there were stories shared at home.

“My dad was a great storyteller. As a little kid, I would get into bed Sunday mornings with my parents and he would tell me stories about a fictitious character called Johnny and his gang of friends. Dad would riff on stuff. He would say, ‘So, where do you think they went today?’ I’d say, ‘They went to the river.’ And he’d say, ‘Right, and what happened when they went to the river?’ ‘They fell in.’ ‘Oh, and who would rescue them?’ Back and forth.”

His father worked in a grocery, his mother, in a school canteen. He had two older half-sisters, one from each of his parents’ first marriages. “I was a good kid,” Rankin says. “My family were always supportive. I was allowed to read as many comics as I liked. And the library system was fantastic.”

An English teacher recognized his writing talent and encouraged him, but he kept his ambitions to himself. “I was the only person I knew from my village interested in creative stuff.” Historic Edinburgh was only 40 kilometres (25 miles) away, but it was a trip rarely made:

“My parents were working-class, blue-collar people. They never owned a car. Buses, trains were irregular. I remember my mom, when I was a kid, took me to go to the [Edinburgh] Castle and to the museum, maybe once to go to the pantomime. But it seemed like a long way away. I didn’t really know Edinburgh until I arrived as a student in 1978, at age 18.”

The centuries-old city fascinated him. “I started walking around to make sense of it, writing about the city.” Rich in history, Edinburgh’s Old Town dates back to the 15th century, New Town to the 18th. “It does keep expanding,” Rankin says. “New buildings, a new tram, all kinds of things, but the centre of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can’t change it very much. You can easily walk around it in a day.”

The city sparkles for tourists, especially during the annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, a weeks-long worldwide attraction filled with street performances and theatrical shows—more than 3,000 in 2017. But there’s also Edinburgh’s dark side, with less seen people living on the margins amid crime and poverty. It’s a city, Rankin once wrote, “that seems to sum up the human condition.”

Rankin thrived at university, beginning a Ph.D. dissertation on the Scottish writer Muriel Spark and writing his stories as time allowed. When he discovered crime fiction, there was much to learn. He later recalled:

“I had no knowledge of police procedure, no idea how the police went about investigating a murder. I wrote to the Chief Constable. He took pity on me and directed me to Leith Police Station, where two wary detectives answered my questions. In my duffle coat and Doc Martens boots, a Dr. Who scarf wrapped around me, I probably wasn’t their idea of a novelist.”

Though on good terms today, he adds, “I’m not interested in the books becoming PR machines for the police. I want to write about bad cops or have Rebus break the rules.”

Rankin’s novels have confronted crime in many guises—the cold-case murder of a glamour girl in a posh hotel, the death of a junkie in a flophouse bedecked with satanic imagery, the killings of Johnny Bible, imitator of the real-life 1960s Scottish murderer Bible John. Critics applaud his fast-moving plots, crackling dialogue, and finely etched characters. (Rebus’s younger colleagues, Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox, have become central.) Each manuscript receives a first hard look from Rankin’s wife, Miranda. A noted tapestry weaver who also runs a global tapestry contest, Miranda Harvey is a valued source of creative support.

“She’s from Belfast,” Rankin says. “We met at university, both doing English Literature. We just started dating—in 1981.” They married in 1986.

Of the two British television series based on the Rebus books, the author says, “I’ve never watched them. I didn’t want voices and mannerisms to get in my head and replace whatever was already there.” He is, however, quite familiar with Rebus: Long Shadows, the play currently touring Britain; he co-wrote it with playwright Rona Munro.

After Knots and Crosses, Rankin got some guidance from an editor:

“He said, ‘I don’t like it when we see Rebus in the bedroom. Just pause at the door.’ I was quite happy. I don’t like writing sex scenes—I was pretty uncomfortable with the early ones. He said, ‘We don’t need as much sex and violence as you think we do in crime fiction; let the reader use their imagination.’”

Despite his early unease at having his work labelled “crime fiction,” the genre and Rankin have been good for each other. “Within that tight framework of ‘crime, investigation, resolution,’ you can do anything!” he says. “All the big moral questions I want to posit and all the big themes that I want to explore, I can best do inside the crime novel. Why would I want to do anything else?”

He loves to muse over societal change using Rebus’s voice. The disruptions of new technology? They’re a blessing and a bane. “I’m a little bit more technology-minded than Rebus, but not much,” Rankin smiles. “So when he’s befuddled by social media, that’s me, basically.” On the question of Scottish independence, he’s had characters saying “yes” and others, “no.”

Rebus and Rankin also share a taste in music—“a CD was playing quietly on the Saab’s antiquated sound system, not Arvo Pärt this time, but Brian Eno.” Like life, the books return again and again to the “grey areas” of right and wrong, of crime and punishment. “You can,” Rankin says, “have open endings.”

Ian Rankin and Miranda Harvey have raised two sons. Jack, the elder (26), “reads a fair amount, loves art as an aficionado,” Rankin says. “He dropped out of ‘uni’ after a year—it wasn’t for him. When I get back home, he and I are going to Vienna to see a Bruegel exhibition; that’s the kind of thing he loves doing.”

Kit, the younger son, has, Rankin says, “very serious disabilities, so he lives in a special home for young adults. Having someone with disabilities in your family does introduce you to a different world of everyday heroes coping with the stuff we’re coping with, but without the resources we’ve got.” Kit’s challenges are severe and, the writer says, “that changes your outlook on life.”

As a student, Rankin worked part-time at a number of jobs, including as a grape picker and a swineherd. He loved singing in a punk band called Dancing Pigs, and now he’s in a band again.

“It’s just a bunch of guys in their 50s who should know better,” he smiles. “We’ve got only four songs.”

His love for Edinburgh endures. Told of his OBE, he says, “I said, ‘Yes, please!’ I thought it was important that crime fiction was being seen as literature.” Commitments kept him from travelling to Buckingham Palace to receive the honour from the Queen, so it was conferred on him in his beloved Edinburgh by the Lord Mayor. “My whole family went,” he smiles, “then the Lord Mayor took me to the pub.”

The family home has for years been in Edinburgh’s Merchiston district, a place of fine old homes and interesting neighbours. Author Alexander McCall Smith (writer of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series) “lives just two doors down. And Jo [J.K.] Rowling used to live at the top of the street.” But change is coming.

“You get to that stage—big house, your kids don’t live at home anymore, can’t be bothered looking after the garden. So all my papers and manuscripts are going to the National Library of Scotland, a lot of my books and CDs have gone to various charity shops. We’re moving to an apartment.”

However, he’s holding on to a special family resource: “We’re in the fortunate position where we have a little cottage in the north, in a little fishing village past Loch Ness on the east coast. It looks out over the water. There’s no Internet, no cellphone signal, no TV. That’s where the books tend to be written, ’cause there are no distractions. And the guy who owns the local pub has a creel [lobster trap] out in the water…he sometimes brings in a lobster and says, ‘Lobster and chips in half an hour.’ Great!”

As In a House of Lies takes its place in the Rankin canon, Rebus and company continue to dazzle fans. Soon readers will be hungry for another novel. Will the hugely popular series continue? Will Rankin’s storytelling antennae twitch again?

“Look,” he answers, “between every book I wonder. You write as long as you can, as long as you’ve got stories to tell. But we can all think of writers who should have stopped. Do I have another book left in me?” Master of suspense, he ponders. “I have no idea.”