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Interview: Crime writer Ian Rankin

Twenty-five years after it all began, Ian Rankin has brought one of crime fiction’s most iconic characters out of retirement.

Crime writer Ian Rankin

Therapy, fun, and dissatisfaction: a quarter century after his first crime novel was published, with shelves full of awards, millions of books sold and an OBE for services to literature under his belt, iconic Scottish author Ian Rankin is still driven to write, for many reasons. “We writers seem to be very compulsive individuals,” he says. “We’re happiest at a desk with a pen and paper or laptop or whatever it happens to be. We’re happiest inside our heads, which makes us very strange creatures.”

Strange, but not as strange as they would be if they couldn’t transfer what their minds have spawned into plots and prose. Writing crime fiction is therapeutic, says Rankin, with a soft chuckle. “You can channel a lot of darkness from in your head onto the page, which means that crime writers are usually nicely well-balanced individuals in real life – and that we’d be terrible people if we didn’t get all that stuff out onto the page.” Plus “it’s fun”, says Rankin, to create and write about characters such as Edinburgh detective John Rebus, a noble curmudgeon the Times called “one of the most beguiling characters in the history of crime fiction” and whom Rankin describes as “a born anarchist”. Writing allows you to play God, he says. “It’s like being a kid who never had to grow up: you’re still playing with your imaginary friends, you’re still playing roleplaying games, you get to have adventures … all inside your head.”

It’s been five years since Rankin last played with Rebus, having retired the maverick copper in 2007’s Exit Music, much to the chagrin of readers worldwide. Since then, Rankin has penned an opera libretto, a graphic novel, a serial for the New York Times that evolved into the stand-alone novel Doors Open (which has been adapted into an upcoming TV movie) and introduced a new series with a new leading man. DI Malcolm Fox of Lothian and Borders Police’s Complaints and Conduct Department (internal affairs, or “the rat squad”), the hero of 2009’s The Complaints and last year’s The Impossible Dead, is a bit of an “anti-Rebus” on a number of fronts, admits the author. Something in Rebus’s nature compels him to cross lines, whereas Fox and his colleagues will “always follow orders, always follow procedure”.

After taking an internal affairs cop out for a drink, Rankin was fascinated by the challenge of making such a “toe the line” character interesting for readers. “Fox started as a very different character from Rebus, because he couldn’t do the job he does otherwise.” But Rebus always loomed – for readers, and Rankin. When the detective neared the mandatory Scottish police retirement age of 60 (Rankin aged Rebus in real time since the series began with Knots and Crosses in 1987), there were even suggestions in the Scottish Parliament of raising the real-life retirement age so Rebus could continue. And for Rankin, his most famous creation “just refused to leave the premises”. Retired or not, John Rebus remained inside his author’s head. “I was still aware of him questions in my mind. What’s happened to Siobhan, his colleague? What’s happened to Cafferty, his nemesis?” Rankin “had half a mind” to write a novel centred on Siobhan Clarke or “Big Ger” Cafferty, but then fate, as it does, intervened. And Rebus himself has returned, in Standing in Another Man’s Grave (released on November 8).

It started with a law change (the police retirement age was raised in Scotland), and a couple of scribbles on a scrap of paper. Rankin clips newspapers and writes down thoughts throughout the year, before combing through them when it comes time to start a new book. “I really don’t get that many ideas,” he says, when I ask how he decides which of many nascent ideas might be novel-worthy. “I’m lucky if I get one good idea a year. But luckily one good idea a year is all I need … I’ll sit down and sift through it all and see if there’s anything there. And if there isn’t anything, then I’ve really got to start panicking” In the case of Standing in Another Man’s Grave, Rankin’s creative process was sparked by the scrawled phrases “a road trip” and “somebody whose kid went missing years ago is still looking for them, with the help of a retired cop”. Something just “jumped out” at him. “It was really about absence, and can we ever really let go of people when they disappear from our lives? Sifting through, I could see lots of potential there, for all different kinds of ways of approaching this.”

And besides, Rankin could think of the perfect “retired cop” for the job. When he retired Rebus in Exit Music, Rankin knew where the ex-detective would end up: still working for the police, but as a civilian in Lothian and Borders’ cold case unit. “It’s a real-life unit in Edinburgh; there are three retired detectives and one serving detective, and they just review old unsolved cases from decades back, to see if there is any progress to be made,” explains Rankin. “That’s the perfect job for Rebus. He knows that without “the job”, he almost really doesn’t exist. He’s just going to sit in the pub and drink himself into an early grave. So he would have pleaded to be able to join that unit, and he will have joined that unit.”

Of course, with the mandatory retirement age rising, Rebus would be tempted to reapply for a position as a serving detective. And that’s where things got really interesting for Rankin. “I thought, ‘Hang on a minute, there’s going to be one person who does not want him back on the force, and that person is Malcolm Fox’, because internal affairs is going to say, ‘We don’t want this maverick, this bad apple, back as a serving police officer’, so I could see how these two characters could come up against each other, and maybe sparks would fly.” Sparks certainly do fly in Standing in Another Man’s Grave, which is a cracking novel demonstrating Rankin is still very much at the top of the game. While delving into a series of seemingly unrelated disappearances dating back more than a decade, Rebus stubbornly puts himself, and those around him, in jeopardy. Fox, Clarke and Cafferty all feature strongly in a page-turning story that also reflects on time passing and the effects of an ever-changing world, on people and places. That sense of evolution is something Rankin has always been interested in addressing in his writing. It’s one reason he aged Rebus throughout the series, unlike some famous recurring heroes.

“One thing I know about cops is that they are changed by everything that happens to them in their job,” says Rankin. “They’re changed by new technology that comes along and gives them more tools for solving crimes … I don’t want my detectives to be museum pieces, I want them to evolve. That will allow me to show the city they live in was also evolving, that Edinburgh was changing.” When Rankin first turned to crime writing (as a young student supposed to be working towards a PhD in Scottish literature), it was because he wanted to write about contemporary Edinburgh. “I didn’t think anybody was doing it at the time,” he recalls. “I was very aware of Edinburgh’s literary history – we’ve got stuff like Jekyll and Hyde. And I just thought Edinburgh is a Jekyll and Hyde city, it’s a city that can seem to the tourist to be polite and well ordered, and yet there’s a lot of chaos beneath the surface.”

He thought a contemporary crime novel would allow him to look at “the way the Edinburgh of the past is reflected in the Edinburgh of the present”, and the way human beings are also Jekyll and Hyde characters. “We are all capable of great kindness, and yet we are also all capable of acts of evil.” Rankin’s oeuvre demonstrates crime fiction’s ability, at its best, to be the modern social novel. “A detective is the perfect character, the perfect means, of looking at society as a whole,” he says. “I can’t think of any other character you could use that allows you access to any area of society. People can close a door on a journalist and refuse to speak, but if a detective drags you around to the station for an interview, he’s going to get answers from you.”

Standing in Another Man's GraveInvestigators such as Rebus, Clarke and Fox allow Rankin “access to the banks, the politicians, the CEOs, the people who run business, but also the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, the unemployed, the drug addicts, the prostitutes”. Every area of society is fair game, because he has chosen to write about such characters. And for a man driven to write about “why we continue to do bad things to each other, as human beings” and “the way the world is changing and why crime happens”, crime fiction provides the ideal method of exploring such “big” questions, through the prism of an exciting story. However, Rankin’s not writing polemic. “I’m not writing an essay, I’m not writing a political speech,” he stresses. “I’m writing fiction that’s got to entertain, because it’s got to sell. I’m not being sponsored by the Government, or any arts council. I make a living wholly and completely from selling books. So I can’t pontificate. I can’t jump up on a soapbox and bore people.”

In an Ian Rankin novel, the issues and themes are always bubbling away beneath an exciting surface. “But if a reader enjoys the story and doesn’t get that subtext, it doesn’t bother me. It’s there if you want to get it.”

STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE by Ian Rankin (Orion, $36.99) will be released on November 8.

Ian Rankin will be visiting New Zealand and appearing at public events in Auckland (November 12), Wellington (November 13), and Dunedin (November 14). See www.hachette.co.nz for details.