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Ian Rankin and Rebus at Waterstones, The FT Magazine

‘Rankin takes off his jacket and drops it gently to the floor as he reads. Once again stillness.’

Glass tiles blur the setting sun on the sixth floor stairwell of Waterstone’s, Piccadilly. In the frostily air-conditioned Simpson Room, 100 black chairs sit in a crescent around a thin black podium. Windows look on to an archetypal London scene of Wren and Hawkesmoor spires but the chattering audience awaits one of Edinburgh’s famous sons, Ian Rankin.

Translated into 24 languages, with 10 million books sold, Rankin is famed for creating Detective Inspector John Rebus (as in riddle). Rebus is intense, awkward and tortured by the memory of bloody crimes. He stalks the contemporary Edinburgh of asylum seekers and MSPs (members of the Scottish parliament), a traditional loner fuelled by whisky and cigarettes, jadedly compassionate, bending rules for justice, never profit.

Rankin’s writing is Stanley-knife sharp: “‘Calvinism? I thought the only Calvin you knew these days was Mr. Klein.’”; “Hate was handed down through the generations like a christening shawl.” At 45, it has helped him gain an OBE, honorary doctorates and the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger award for lifetime achievement.

He enters quietly through swing doors, pale skinned, his jacket, shirt and brogues black, his jeans peat brown. There the darkness ends. Rankin has come to talk about the reissue of his first, pre-Rebus novel The Flood – and the non-fiction book, Rebus’s Scotland. He smiles easily, one hand in a pocket, the other gesturing loosely, as if among friends in his (and Rebus’s) beloved Oxford Bar in Edinburgh.

Rankin takes us back to his writing roots and his home in the mining village of Cardenden in Fife. In The Flood, it was disguised, thinly, as Carsden. “People from Cardenden thought they could see themselves in it. My dad thought he could see himself in it. I got a shit load of trouble. That is what led me to create Inspector Rebus because he was very unlike me. People couldn’t read it and see themselves or me.” Now first editions of The Flood fetch $5,000 in America, he says, appalled. Yet in 1986, the 200-copy print run didn’t even sell out. “It was pulped, I got a letter saying ‘Would you like to buy the remaining copies at 10p a copy?’ I said ‘No, I’ve got five here.’”

The joking stops as he reads an extract. He uses the podium for the first time, erect, formal, voice dipping at the end of sentences, shaping lines as if reading poetry. The room is utterly still and remains so as he talks about inventing Rebus. On the same day he signed the contract for The Flood, he sat in his PhD student digs and an image came to him: coded messages in the form of knotted string and matchstick crosses.

“I thought ‘Who’s getting sent these little picture puzzles? Maybe it’s a cop and the person tormenting him is from the past.’ And it just went bing bang bong from there.” He called the cop Rebus and the resulting novel Knots And Crosses. “As a writer, you don’t get many days like that,” he says.

The Scotland of the novels is bleak. “I would love to write about Rebus enjoying the beauty of the Scottish countryside. ‘My God look at that view, isn’t it fantastic. The traffic is great compared to London.’ He doesn’t see that because the nature of the job has made him cynical and jaundiced.”

The essays and photographs of Rebus’s Scotland try to redress that view. But the DI’s brooding character sells books, and the photography in the book is sombre urban monochrome, not gleeful highland chocolate box.

Rankin takes off his jacket and drops it gently to the floor as he reads. Once again stillness, but his tone is lighter as he diverges to talk about having a street named after him in forgiving Cardenden. “Ian Rebus Court. The wind-up there, of course, is that most people in Edinburgh say I should actually be in court for crimes against literature.”

After the reading, there is more self-deprecation. “Just in case there is anyone in from Desert Island Discs, I’m waiting for the phone call. Every bloody writer I know in Edinburgh except Kate Atkinson has been on Desert Island Discs.”

Then: “Who has got questions? Sir.” Had he thought of setting a Rebus case abroad? No. “Whenever I read a crime fiction series, the weakest is the one where the cop goes away.” Rebus is now 58, won’t he have to retire at 60? There are options, Rankin says. “I can stop the clock. Nobody minds that. Nobody minds that Dalgleish is 105, Wexford 86.” But he finds it “really sad” that an MSP took up Scottish parliament time to ask if the Edinburgh CID’s retirement age could be extended to save Rebus.

Rankin thanks his audience. “If you’ve got any questions and didn’t want to ask in front of a crowd, please do come up and ask me later on when I am signing books. Even if you’re not buying a book.”

A long queue forms. Outside, a male and female beggar scream at each other. The woman starts kicking the man. One for Rebus, not his genial creator.

11 November 2005

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