A driven, haunted detective

Ian Rankin, author of the hugely popular series of novels featuring John Rebus, stumbled into crime writing by accident. Neglecting his postgraduate studies on the Scottish novel to concentrate on writing a book that was meant as a homage to Robert Louis Stevenson’s «Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,» Rankin was astonished to find his work published as a whodunit rather than as literature. «That was my first mistake,» he says. Mistake or not, that book launched Rankin’s career. He has since become the leading exponent of the «tartan noir» sub-genre, gaining three honorary doctorates for the crime fiction that supplanted his formal PhD studies. In Athens this week for the launch of the Greek edition of his latest book, «Resurrection Men» (pub. Metaichmio), translated by Alexandra Kontaxaki, Rankin talked to Kathimerini English Edition about his work and being «disinvited» to the Athens Book Fair. The ‘disinvitation’ Ian Rankin was originally invited to visit the annual Athens book fair by the Athens Booksellers and Publishers Association (SEBA), who withdrew their invitation last month in protest against British participation in the war on Iraq. The British Council, which had arranged to bring Rankin to Greece, went ahead, joining forces with his Greek publisher Metaichmio. «It’s odd,» comments Rankin. «It’s very odd, partly because British publishing was not ‘pro’ the war in any shape or form whatsoever. You know, we had writers burning their passports. We had huge public gatherings with writers talking at them. People like Harold Pinter were very vocal; there were lots of letters to the newspapers. How can you have a dialogue then about the reasons behind the war, the pros and cons?» Rebus Rankin’s fictional hero Rebus is a driven, haunted detective, obsessed with work at the expense of his private life and ready to bend the rules to solve a case. «Rebus comes from a tradition of dark, complex characters that you find throughout Scottish literature,» says Rankin. «There was quite a lot of Hyde in Rebus in that first book.» Rankin didn’t start reading crime fiction until after he started writing it, and then he was attracted to American authors who wrote about urban life. «The crime novel deals with the fears of the society it’s writing about, the fears of its readership.» But it’s also very good at delineating place, he believes, and it was Edinburgh that Rankin wanted to explore: «I was born about 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Edinburgh, and when I arrived there as a student, I found it a very odd, insular, inward-looking place, a very hard place to get to know, and also with a bizarre, very dark, very blood-soaked history.» His detective has become part of Edinburgh’s history. Early reviews of the series used to say that they were «unlikely to be recommended by the Scottish Tourist Board,» says the author, «because they thought it was painting such a bleak portrait of contemporary Edinburgh. I was keen to talk about this other Edinburgh which also exists. When I started writing the books, we had the worst HIV and AIDS rates in Western Europe, terrible unemployment and deprived communities. Oxfam’s first project on British soil was in Edinburgh on a housing estate, which was so deprived that they reckoned it was almost the same as a Third World country. «Nobody was talking about this at all in the ’80s, when I started writing the books. I was trying to talk about the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the city. But now there’s a Rebus walking tour. There’s a professional tour guide who’ll take you round. People go and drink in the pubs where Rebus drinks; fans come to Edinburgh specifically to go to the places mentioned in the books. They’ll go to the museum to look at the little dolls in the coffins, which are mentioned in ‘The Falls,’ and which really exist. «It has become part of the life of the city. And so a lot of senior cops read the books. They might not admit to it in public, although the chief constable did and reviewed them three times. «But they do read them, and that’s why I’m at pains to try and keep the accuracy going, in terms of what it is actually like to run a police station and to work in the police in northern Scotland.» So accurate is Rankin’s portrayal of the nitty-gritty of police work that he even gets approached by police officers he has never met who insist they are Rebus. «A lot of cops like the books because they say that they paint a realistic portrayal of the office politics, the internal office politics of policing. Police stations won’t share information because they want to be ahead of the game. Police forces won’t cooperate. You’ve got xenophobia; you’ve got sexism; you’ve got lots of Masons, lots of secret societies, secret handshakes. And when an inquiry comes along, like a big murder inquiry, you’re given a budget to work to.» Rebus has more latitude, explains Rankin, than officers in real life: «A lot of detectives would like to be given free rein to go off and do their own thing and show initiative and break the rules and everything.» The jigsaw A prolific writer who has produced 26 books in 17 years (and whose work has been translated into 22 different languages), Rankin writes short stories when he finishes a new Rebus title «to get his voice and his consciousness out of my head.» Last year he did a three-part documentary on evil for Channel 4 in Britain: «That was quite interesting, because I was getting to talk to psychiatrists. I got to go to death row in Texas and to talk to a guy who’s been on death row for 16 years. I was able to go the Vatican and be exorcized by a priest, talk about the devil and whether the devil really exists. I was checked out in a hospital in Washington, DC to see if I had any psychopathic tendencies. «It was an interesting experience because a lot of people would talk to me – like O.J. Simpson’s lawyer spoke to me in Boston, Alan Dershowitz, who wouldn’t have spoken to me if I had gone there as a novelist, because somehow they don’t take crime writing seriously.» Others do, however. Rankin notes another crossover into real life by his character: «Eventually readers start to believe that Rebus is real. This is a weird thing, all these Internet chat rooms about him, and there are fan clubs in places like Norway, and they’ll fly down to Edinburgh, go and drink in the Oxford bar, almost expecting to see him. I think people who come looking for Rebus are often disappointed when they find me – because I’m not as interesting as him. I’m not as complex as him; I’m not as damaged as him; I don’t drink as much as him and I don’t smoke – so they’re not getting Rebus. «I always say that he is my Hyde, as it were, that allows me to be well-balanced in real life. I think that’s true for crime fiction in general – in that crime writers tend to be very well-balanced individuals because the writing is therapy for us; it’s a way of dealing with your demons.» As for the future: «If I ever know everything there is to know about that character, then I would have to stop writing, because it’s only interesting for me if there are new things to find out about him, and if there are new things to say about Edinburgh. If it came to the point where I thought the jigsaw was complete, that would also be the time to finish the books.»

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