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Ian Rankin does crime novels exceptionally well. His fictional Detective Inspector John Rebus has as high a profile across the UK as Rankin does, thanks to 21 novels, numerous short stories, and a television adaptation. Beautifully mind-teasing police procedurals set in Rankin’s hometown of Edinburgh, the Rebus books offer rollercoaster reading-rides that also reflect the tangles of corruption, poverty, organized crime, and other social and political issues that face today’s Scotland (and, indeed, the wider UK).
“All crime fiction boils down to ‘Why do we keep doing these terrible things? Why do human beings keep doing these terrible things to each other?’” Rankin tells me via Skype. “Throughout different cultures, throughout history, we just keep doing it. Is it something in our nature? Is it nature, or is it nurture? I made a TV documentary series years ago about evil [2002’s Ian Rankin’s Evil Thoughts], and it boiled down to that question of whether people are born bad or made bad. It’s a very easy question to ask and an almost impossible question to answer. But there are interesting things to come out of it. I was talking to one psychiatrist who said that the very things that make you a super-successful person in business would also make you a super-successful serial-killer-slash-psychopath: the inability to empathize; using people for your own ends; no conscience. And you can see there are a few of those people around now, and they do seem to get into positions of power.”
In his crime novels thrumming with contemporary resonance, Rankin has found the perfect place to explore these questions. “I think at first my books were whodunits, but as I got more confident about the form and about what the crime novel could do, I thought, ‘Well there’s nothing it can’t do.’ If you want to talk about politics, if you want to talk about society, if you want to talk about good and evil, if you want to talk about big moral issues, big moral questions: here’s the perfect form for doing that.”
Rankin’s 21st Rebus novel Rather Be the Devil, marks the 30th year of the series which kicked off in 1987 with Knots & Crosses. At the time, Rankin wrote the book as a standalone, contemporary take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr.Hyde. But, after a couple of non-Rebus books followed, Rankin’s editor, Euan Cameron, kept asking, “What ever happened to Rebus? I liked that guy.” And thus, the long-standing Rankin-Rebus relationship was born. It took several years and multiple books—1997’s Black & Blue, Rebus’s eighth outing and winner of the Crime Writers’ Association’s best crime novel of the year award, is often considered Rankin’s breakout novel—but since then there’s been no looking back. The novels have taken on newly-found mantles of complexity, generating critical kudos and bestselling status, as well as garnering Rankin a rich range of awards and making Rebus a household name.
Over time, the irascible, hard-living detective has been joined by various partners and colleagues: his current klatch, which includes DI Siobhan Clarke and DI Malcolm Fox, plays tetchily together, their personality differences providing many of the unalloyed pleasures of the books. Some of the funniest moments in the current novel entail the recently retired, still-maverick Rebus noncommittally foisting the rule-abiding Fox’s business cards on unsuspecting members of the public as though they were his own—and Fox’s dawning realization of the transgression. As in every Rebus novel, Rather Be the Devil is centered around the stones and criminal elements of Edinburgh; its multi-stranded plotlines flaunt gangsters, young and old, dodgy betting shops, and financial chicanery as blatantly as Rebus flouts parking regulations (his car boasts a glove compartment stuffed to the gills with unpaid tickets).
Another deeply enjoyable aspect of Devil is the marked presence of sort-of-retired Edinburgh gangster Big Ger Cafferty, a larger-than-life man with an insidious side who, amusingly, can’t bring himself to pass up a bargain. Cafferty is an old-fashioned gangster in the same way that Rebus is an old-fashioned detective: they’re the best—and last—of their kind, and they recognize that in each other.
“Their relationship has changed over time,” notes Rankin. “Cafferty arrived early, as a cameo, in book three, Tooth and Nail. I needed Rebus to go to Glasgow for some reason and I thought, ‘Okay he’s going to give evidence at a trial. Who’s he giving evidence against? Oh, it’s going to be a gangster, it’s going to be this guy Cafferty.’ But Cafferty got under my skin; I thought, ‘There’s a lot I can do with you.’ I guess it’s what writers before have found: Arthur Conan Doyle found that Holmes needs a Moriarty, and Rebus needs a Cafferty. He needs someone to represent all the bad stuff in the world but someone who’s also—there’s a kind of Cain and Abel thing there as well, in the sense that they’re very close, they understand each other. They come from a similar background, but their lives have taken very different directions. So there’s a lot in that relationship, and, because Rebus and Cafferty age in real time, I’m now at the stage where I’m dealing with two old guys who are looking at the world around them, wondering if they still have any useful role to play. That’s something that faces all of us as we get older. So, in some ways, dealing with Rebus, even though he’s a decade older than me, is a way of me asking myself those questions. And I do feel a bit like him when people try to explain the modern world to me. I mean technology baffles me most of the time.”
Arguably not when it comes to Twitter, however, a platform where Rankin seems to thoroughly enjoy himself, chatting about music, books, beer, and whatever he’s up to. “I use it as a little diary,” agrees Rankin, who joined eight years ago. “I only signed up because I’d read that Stephen Fry had been trapped in a lift and he’d been tweeting about it. I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’ so I signed up and I called myself beathhigh which is my old high school, thinking, ‘Nobody will know it’s me. I’ll be hiding behind this pseudonym.’ A couple of weeks later I went back on and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got 150 followers! Who they hell are these people and what are they doing here? I need to start talking to them.’ So I kind of became a Twitter addict by accident. But a lot of writers use it because, well, I’m sitting here talking to you from my office which is a room in my house; we’re usually very isolated for long periods when we’re writing our books. And when you step away and make a cup of tea or coffee and you check Twitter it’s like you’ve gone to the water cooler or canteen—you’re connecting with friends and workmates and you’re getting the news and the jokes and the gossip and the weather. Then, after a few minutes, you can switch off and go back to work.”
As much as Rankin relishes diving into Rebus’s head, it’s Clarke and Fox who are closer reflections of his generally more cautious self. “They’re a different generation to Rebus; they’re college-educated, more liberal. Rebus, he’s very much an old-testament kind of guy: he sees the world in terms of black and white, good and evil. People aren’t allowed to change. There are a lot of things he believes that I don’t. So there’s often a conversation to be had, either between Fox and Rebus or Siobhan and Rebus, as to the way the world actually is, where they’re trying to change his mind on things. They’re kind of my spokespeople in the books.”
That said, Rankin does share Rebus’s background. “I’m from a working-class family and he’s a blue-collar guy. But I got to go to university, whereas he left school at 15. So his trajectory was similar to people I knew growing up, guys I hung around with at school who didn’t have the qualifications to go on to university. When they left school, there were only certain job opportunities: some joined the armed forces and some joined the police. And that’s kind of what Rebus did. Also, he’s got a bit of an anarchic streak: if you’re a small-time crook who’s in that business because it’s the only way you know how to make a living, he’s going to give you a break in a way that he ain’t gonna give a break to a politician or a businessperson who’s in it because they’re greedy, avaricious, or just plain crooked. There’s something of that in him that I think comes straight from me.”
Rankin’s 2017 calendar is already packed even though he’s taking a break from writing about Rebus this year. He’s planning on working on a stage play and a radio drama for the BBC in the first half of the year; he’s also got a full travel schedule “running around every festival in the world it seems,” talking about Rebus’s 30th anniversary, including a three-day, Rankin-curated, Rebus-focused festival in Edinburgh at the end of June. “There’s quite a lot in the first half of the year, and I will get itchy. The last time I tried to take a year off I got itchy after about six months and started writing lots of short stories. None of them were Rebus stories, and none were for publication; they were just fun things to sit and write,” recalls Rankin, who began writing “by instinct” when he was nine or ten years old, creating little booklets out of folded paper and producing stories and comic books. “I mean I have all these ideas that go into my ideas folder and never quite work out as novels, so I thought maybe I could use some of them as little short stories and just get them done, get them down on paper. It was fun to sit and write, just like I did in the days back when I was a student, no thought of doing it for a market or commercially, just having an idea and getting it down on paper. It was great. It stretched me a little bit because they weren’t all crime stories—though there was one about guys pretending to be chauffeurs at an airport, picking up business people and nicking all their stuff once they get them in the car. Some could be half a page, some could be one page, some could be ten pages. I think 3,000 words was probably the longest, and 150 words was the shortest. It was good fun.”
Free-wheeling short stories or no, crime fiction seems to be where his heart lies, as much for the form’s strong writing and socially realistic qualities as for its puzzle-centric elements. Quite often, he notes, some of the best crime fiction arrives after conflicts end. “It tells you what just happened,” Rankin says. “My wife grew up in Northern Ireland throughout The Troubles, and what I love about Adrian McKinty’s books is that he takes me back to that period and he explains to me why all that went on and how you could live a normal life—or a nearly normal life—even in the middle of bombs going off everywhere or the threat of bombs going off everyday. I think he paints that world very well. And it’s not just him—people like Stuart Neville have done it as well, and Tana French, in a different way, in Ireland. She’s saying, ‘Look, here’s this Celtic Tiger economy we’ve been told about and Ireland’s had all these amazing social and economic changes. Why are we still screwed up?’”
Currently immersed in Anthony Horowitz’s The Magpie Murders—“a really nice tongue-in-cheek novel about crime fiction; it’s a whodunit that’s also a novel about whodunits”—Rankin also admires fellow UK crime fiction writer Sarah Hilary. “I’ve got her new one here, Quieter Than Killing. I’m a big fan of her books. She’s very good on social issues, all the stuff we’ve just been talking about. Her first one was a murder mystery centered around a refuge for victims of domestic violence, and she makes you think about the way the world is. You know, trying to address the questions of, ‘My god, why does this stuff happen?’ Another writer, Eva Dolan, does very similar things with social issues. I love all these young writers, these young whippersnappers.” Really? That’s what you call them? Rankin laughs. “Well, not to their faces.”