by Ian Rankin
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
320 pages, 1999
Set In Darkness
by Ian Rankin
Published by Orion Books
320 pages, 2000
Ian Rankin's John Rebus Series
Being Ian Rankin has become hard work. Between dashing about on international publicity tours, speaking before crime writers' associations and struggling with a three-part BBC-TV cop drama (set in a fictional fishing community north of Aberdeen, Scotland), the author finds less and less free time nowadays to devote to the continuing adventures of Edinburgh Detective Inspector John Rebus. However, it's his Rebus books -- the newest of which, Set In Darkness, is due out in Great Britain in February -- that have brought Rankin, at just under 40 years of age, extraordinary acclaim. On both sides of the Atlantic.
American novelist James Ellroy calls Rankin the "King of Tartan Noir," a clever credit that rivals Michael Connelly's commendation of him as "up there among the best crime novelists at work today." In the United Kingdom, Rankin's novels are guaranteed bestsellers, on a par with the works of better-known mega-authors such as John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell. The British Crime Writers Association has presented him with two CWA Daggers for his short stories, and in 1997 Rankin won the prestigious CWA Gold Dagger Award for Fiction for his eighth Rebus novel, Black and Blue. That same book was short-listed for the Edgar Award for Best Novel in the United States, and a TV version of Black and Blue, starring John Hannah (familiar from roles in such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Mummy), is due for broadcast in the UK this spring.
For Rankin, these plaudits are a recognition of how far he's come. But they're also an endorsement of his early vision that Scottish fiction could find an enthusiastic readership well beyond his homeland of clans and castles. Born in Cardenden, Fife, in the Scottish Lowlands, Rankin went on to hold a variety of jobs (swineherd and alcohol researcher being only two of the more colorful ones), sing in a short-lived punk band called The Dancing Pigs, earn a degree from Edinburgh University in English Literature (specializing in American Lit), study toward a Ph.D. in Scottish Literature and finally make the leap into prose writing. One of his short stories "raged out of control," as Rankin explains it, and became his first book, The Flood (1986). By 1990 he had become a full-time novelist.
What makes Rankin's Rebus tales so appealing is their distinctly unappealing main protagonist. John Rebus is cynical, antisocial and full of barely repressed anger, a cop who harbors animosities and makes terrible blunders out of impatience. Yet he is also an attentive observer and a relentless investigator who eventually manages to restore order to the frequent disorder that rules Edinburgh's medieval-flavored streets. While his early escapades established Rebus' character, as well as Rankin's dour perspective on Scotland's capital, it was Black and Blue -- which sent the inspector after a copycat serial killer -- that seemed finally to establish Rebus as one of this genre's most distinctive and memorable figures. Rankin's two subsequent books -- The Hanging Garden (which found Rebus on the paper trail of a war criminal) and Dead Souls (in which he alternately hounded a pedophile and a murderer, both brought back to his patch) -- burnished his reputation. Set In Darkness (involving the new Scottish Parliament and 20-year-old secrets) will likely be equally well received.
During his recent self-promotional swing through the States, I had the chance to talk with Rankin about his early writing, some of the odd coincidences that have accompanied his books and, yes, even his history as a suspect in a kidnap-murder investigation.
J. Kingston Pierce: I've heard not only that you didn't set out to be a crime novelist, but that as a boy in Cardenden, you didn't even have a bookstore at which you might have been exposed to this sort of fiction.
Ian Rankin: No, but we did have a small library, which was funded by the local coal miners. The coal miners funded everything, you know. They funded the public swimming pool, they funded the sports center and the library. It was a nice little library, but the nearest bookstore was six, seven miles away.
Whenever you've talked about Cardenden in the past, you've made it sound like such a lonely place. Was it?
We used to call it "Car-dead-end," if that gives you the picture. But the place did kind of prime me for writing, because in the 1960s, when the Scottish coal mines all closed out for economic reasons, and even as a 6- year-old you could see the hope seeping out of the town, I found escape through my imagination. I tried to create a better world in my mind, a world in which Cardenden was a kind of exciting place to be. I was always an obsessive sort of kid, and I just took my imagination to extremes, you know. I used to write stories and make up comic books and stuff like that, anything to vent my imagination.
It wasn't enough just to read comic books, I had to make up my own, complete with stick men and speech bubbles. I made up a pop music group called Kaput, after the lead singer Ian Kaput, and in the comics I created a whole world around them, an alternate universe where they were always number one [on the hit charts] and they went on tour. And I even wrote song lyrics for them.
How many of these comic books did you develop?
Quite a few, but they're all gone now, I'm afraid. They were chucked out somewhere along the line.
So nobody's going to find them someday and publish them as the pubescent scribblings of a now-famous wordsmith?
Oh, Jesus, no. Thankfully.
Actually, there's a guy I used to know in Edinburgh, who now lives in New York City. I had lunch with him when I was there recently, and he said, "I think I've still got some of those early student magazines that put your poetry in them." I said, "I'll give you money for them. Just give them to me. Or just burn them." I don't want any of that stuff coming out. [Laughs]
You actually thought you were going to be a poet when you were a young teenager, didn't you?
Well, the first things I wrote were the song lyrics for that nonexistent band. Then when a poetry competition came along at school, I thought: Well, I write song lyrics; that's poetry, isn't it? So I stuck a poem into the contest, called "Euthanasia" -- and it won second prize. So by the time I left [the local comprehensive] school and went to university, I was already a published poet: I'd had one poem published in a magazine.
Where along the line did you discover crime fiction?
It came from my interest in American novels. From a young age, I had a real interest in American fiction. This was partly inspired by the movies. See, while I was too young to get into R-rated movies, like The Godfather or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or A Clockwork Orange, even at ages 11 or 12 nobody stopped me buying the books on which those movies were based. So I was finding a sideways or sneaky way to experience all of these intriguing stories, and loving them. I got into the Shaft books, too -- my introduction to detective fiction. I loved those books.
The Shaft books? You mean that series of novels (beginning with Shaft, 1970) that Ernest Tidyman wrote about John Shaft, the gun-toting black private eye from New York? The same character who inspired the Richard Roundtree movies and short-lived TV series? That was certainly an unusual entry into this genre.
Yeah, but I'd bought the pop record, the soundtrack to the original  movie Shaft, and I thought that was terrific. And then I couldn't get in to see the film -- I wasn't 18 yet. So I bought the first Shaft book, and then the second film came out and the book came out with that, so I bought it, too. I kept up with Shaft long after the series was past its sell-by date.
Are you, then, looking forward to the new Shaft film?
No, really? Are they making a new movie?
I think it's supposed to be called Shaft Returns, with Samuel L. Jackson starring as "the private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks." It's due out later this year.
Oh, dear. Well, you know [singer/musician] Isaac Hayes is hip again. So why not? But it's sad, really. 'Cuz those stories were kind of "blaxploitation." Ernest Tidyman was a white writer, and I don't think he had his finger on the real pulse of what was happening in the black world.
Shaft didn't help inspire the character of John Rebus?
No. Except that I did get his first name "John" from John Shaft. A "Rebus" is a kind of picture puzzle.
I understand that you now wish you'd given Rebus an entirely different name.
I came up with it when I was a smart-arse Ph.D. student who was doing lots of semiotics and deconstruction, and I thought that since the crime novel was playing a game with the reader, I'd do more of the same -- give him the name of a puzzle. Now I just think it's a stupid name.
That was the thing, though: I was coming from left field to crime fiction. Another way I got into it was by reading a lot of criticism, like Umberto Eco's books on literary theory, in which he was fascinated by James Bond and by Sherlock Holmes and stuff like that. And I thought, Oh, this is something worth looking at. But then, when the first Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses, was published [in 1987] and it went onto the Mystery shelves in bookstores, I was appalled! I thought, here I am doing a Ph.D., and I'm going to be a professor of English... and I've written a whodunit.
And you didn't realize that from the outset?
No. I was the accidental crime writer. I used to go into bookstores and I'd take [copies of] my book off the Crime Fiction shelves and put them in with Scottish Fiction. But then, in the last year of my Ph.D. work, when I should've been studying Muriel Spark, I started reading crime fiction to make sure it was OK.
So your doctoral degree was in Scottish Literature?
Yeah, but I didn't finish it. I wrote three novels, instead. The first one was never published -- it was a black comedy, set in a Highlands hotel, and it was called Summer Rites. Never published, though my wife says it's my best book.
Then the second one was The Flood , which was a Bildungsroman about a young man growing up in Fife and dreaming about moving to Edinburgh.
And the third one was Knots & Crosses. Part of my impetus for writing that book was that, in The Flood I'd written about a guy in a town that was too much like Cardenden -- so everybody I knew thought they were somewhere in that story. It didn't help, either, that the name of my heroine turned out to be the name of one of our neighbors, only I didn't know it.
So I thought that I'd write a book that was very, very different. And in Knots & Crosses I made Rebus a lot older than me, and although we had similar backgrounds, he'd gone a different way from the way I'd gone. In fact, he went the way a lot of my friends have gone. In that part of Fife, where the mines had all closed down and unemployment was bad, if you weren't "clever" enough to go to university, your job options were pretty limited. A lot of my friends went into the army or went into the police. And Rebus did both: he originally joined the army, then he moved sideways into the police. Maybe if I hadn't decided to go to university, I would've been more like him.
Then, once Knots & Crosses was received well, you realized police procedural writing was your calling?
Actually, that first Rebus book was received with complete silence. It hardly made a ding. So I went off and did other stuff. I figured that was my one detective novel, and the next time I did a LeCarré-ish spy novel, The Watchman , set in London.
Which you apparently liked a lot, although I confess I've never read The Watchman.
I did like it. I still like it. I think the writing is some of my best, though the book is almost impossible to get now; it hasn't been in print for over a decade. But even recently re-reading The Watchman, I thought the writing had a lot of maturity to it, which is amazing, since I wrote it when I was just 26.
After that, I wrote a sort of big, pulpy book called Westwind , which was set in the States, although I'd never been to the States: I used the Rand-McNally Road Atlas and a couple of videos for my research. It started off as a kind of comedy-thriller and then my editor, who was a real plot doctor, got hold of it and made me change it all around. He wanted the story tougher, but it just ended up being a mess. It had spy satellites, space shuttles, all kinds of shit in it.
How did you get back from there to Rebus?
I think somebody said to me one day, "Whatever happened to that guy Rebus?" I liked him. And I said, "Well, I've got another idea for a novel."
Were you still laboring over your Ph.D. at this point?
Let's think. The Flood was published in February of 86. I got married [to Miranda Harvey, who'd been a year above him at the university] in July 86 and moved to London. So by the time Knots & Crosses came out, I was living in London, working as a secretary at a college down there. I also worked in London as the editor of a hi-fi magazine. Meanwhile, my wife was working full-time as a civil servant in Whitehall, pretty much supporting me, so I had some time for writing.
But eventually she persuaded me, after four years in London, that if I was going to be a full-time writer, we had to move to France. How she got that past me, I don't know: I must've been really drunk or something. Anyway, she reasoned that if we moved to France, where land was cheaper in the countryside, we could buy a farm and become self-sufficient and I could sit and write all day. So that's what we did. Eventually, though, we ended up with a fridge full of lettuce and cabbage that we didn't really want to eat.
And you now live in Edinburgh again?
We returned about three years ago, though we've still got the house in France; both our kids [sons Jack and Kit] were born there. We lived there for six years and I used to travel to Edinburgh six times a year to do research. But we finally moved back [to Scotland], partly because the kids were getting to be school age, and partly because my British publishers were going crazy -- they said they couldn't promote me properly, because I wasn't available in the UK to do interviews and such.
So has your being settled back in Scotland made a difference in your stories?
I don't think so. The Hanging Garden was half written in France and half in Edinburgh. Dead Souls was completely written in Edinburgh, and that's the first book since Knots & Crosses that's been like that. And I've got another coming out, which was going to be the first book of a trilogy, but is now going to be a one-book trilogy.
This is Set In Darkness?
It is. And I'd originally thought that within the series I'd create an interlinked trilogy about the new Scottish Parliament. But two things happened. First, I decided that the Scots Parliament only deserved a one-book trilogy -- that's plenty for these idiots. And second, there was one character who was going to be in all three books, a member of the Parliament -- in Book One he's running for Parliament, in Book Two he's elected and in Book Three the Parliament's up and running. But 40 or 50 pages into Book One, the book whispers to me, Kill him. I thought: No way, I've got three mysteries I'm working on, I don't need this hassle. No, said the book, you've got to kill him. He's got to go.
Well, books have got an internal logic and there's fuck-all you can do about it. So I killed the guy. And once he got bumped off, sure enough, I felt a lot more comfortable with the book. Of course, I didn't know who killed him, I didn't know why he died -- I just had an extra corpse on my hands. The book told me what to do and I went along with it. It was the right decision, even if it did mean an end to my plans for a trilogy.
Where does the title Set In Darkness come from?
It comes partly from the setting: it's winter in Edinburgh, where it's dark when you go to work and it's dark when you head home. It's also part of a line from an obscure American poem: "Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light." I thought the title worked well, because the new Parliament could be leading Scotland into the light after 300 years of being linked to England. And Rebus, you know, has his moments of darkness, but always he seems to finally reach a point of light.
Despite the fact that I expect him -- especially after Black and Blue -- to descend into debilitating cynicism at any moment.
[Laughs] Well, Black and Blue was about as bad as it gets. That was the series' darkest moment. But since then, I think Rebus has brightened a bit. And in Set In Darkness, he's actually quite a bit looser in life. He's kind of decided that he's just going to ignore procedures altogether, get his own little group of people together to run investigations with.
Can he do that? I know that as your series has gone along, realism has become less important, but still...
No police procedural is ever realistic. A realistic police procedural would be the most boring book in the world, because police investigation is tedious and police officers are all tiny cogs in the machine; they never even get to see the whole investigation through from start to finish.
But yes, he could go off on his own, without looking like Superman. His bosses know that Rebus will get results; he just might not go about getting them the way the police would prefer.
You've admitted before that when you started writing the Rebus books, you really knew nothing about police procedures. How did you learn?
Slowly, though I've never made it all up. When I was working on Knots & Crosses, for instance, I went to a great deal of effort to get things right. I wrote a letter to the Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders -- the head guy -- and said, "Dear Sir: I am writing a novel that will lift the lid off the true nature of the police in Edinburgh. Will you help me?" Well, he told me to go to this certain police station in Leith. Which I did. I shambled along there looking like the student I was, unshaven, with long greasy hair, bloodshot eyes -- I'd been on the booze the night before and I don't think I'd been to bed for 24 hours. Anyway, I appeared to be a tramp with a notebook and pen. And these two detectives kind of looked at me skeptically, and they said, "What's your book about?" And I said, "Well, these kids have been abducted and this detective has got to work out whodunit and why."
What I didn't know at the time was that this police station was investigating a child abduction, which was very similar to what I was describing; eventually, seven kids were taken and killed. These cops see a lunatic come into the station with this spurious story about writing a novel and they immediately cast me as a suspect. But they're very clever. They said to me, "Well, you want to see how an investigation works?" And I said, "Yeah, I'd love that." So they start asking me all these questions, and typing in my answers, and I think I'm getting a great story, lots of local color. Then, eventually, they get to the question, "What were you doing on the night of the 11th of November?" I'm playing along with them, and I say, "I don't know, I think I was drunk that night." And that gets typed in, too.
Well, it wasn't till I went home that weekend and told my dad the story, that he said, "You silly bugger, they think you've done it." And I went back and asked the police, and sure enough, I was a suspect -- they were looking at me as a kidnapper.
Did they finally catch the real culprit?
Eventually, down in England. And this is one of those coincidences that you couldn't put into a novel, because nobody would believe you. It seems some guy was cutting his grass with an old lawnmower and a stone caught in the blade, so he bent down to fix it. As he bent down, he happened to look to the edge of the lawn, where he had a hedge. And beneath the hedge he saw a child's feet and a man's feet, and he saw the child's feet suddenly lift up -- and heard a little squeal. Later, the man went inside, and he saw this van driving away. So he took down the number and phoned the police. The police found the van, pulled it over, and in the back of the van, there was a rolled-up carpet -- and the carpet was moving. That was victim number eight, right there.
Speaking of coincidences, I understand that you've encountered some other doozies during the writing of your books.
That was certainly the case with Black and Blue, which was about the real-life case of Bible John, a serial killer in Glasgow who was never caught. The case had been dead for 30 years. Then, two weeks after I handed in my manuscript to the publisher, the headline in the paper was "Police Dig Up Bible John." They'd gotten new DNA, a genetic fingerprint from the clothing of John's third victim. And they went back to the original suspects, trying to get a match. One suspect had committed suicide in 1981, so they went to one of his cousins, and the DNA fingerprint was pretty close to Bible John's. So the police got permission to dig this guy's body up, and they did a DNA analysis. Eventually, after a few months, they found that the killer wasn't him, after all. Which was lucky for me, because in Black and Blue, Bible John is alive and well and living in contemporary Scotland.
The same sort of thing happened with The Hanging Garden. We were living in France, near the site of a real-life atrocity that happened during the Second World War. It had a powerful effect on me, that place. I wanted to write about it, but couldn't figure out how. Finally I thought, I'll write about a suspected war criminal living in Edinburgh, quietly, and Rebus has to work out whether it's worth prosecuting him after 50 years. So I went back to Edinburgh, having written half the story, only to find that there was a suspected Nazi war criminal living quietly in Edinburgh. And a TV documentary crew had made a film about him and he'd sued them and taken them to court. And this was all going on while I'm sitting on this book I thought was a novel.
But, of course, the most serendipitous thing of all was that I came across somebody named Rebus.
Really? Was he a cop?
No, a central heating engineer. But he's the only person named Rebus I've ever met. And he drinks in the same pub I do in Edinburgh. When I moved back to Edinburgh, I was in a different part of town, a part I didn't know particularly well. And I walked into a bar one night and the first people I met were Mr. and Mrs. Joe Rebus. They're the only Rebuses in Scotland. And they live on Rankin Drive. Spooky, eh?
When you were starting out with the Rebus series, you also penned a trio of novels under the pseudonym "Jack Harvey." Why?
It was taking only three months to write a book back then and I just needed something else to fill in the days. So I would write one Rebus and then one Jack Harvey. The Harveys were big, fat airport-type thrillers: you'd buy one for a flight and you'd chuck it away at the other end. But they kind of let me go off the leash a little bit and let me do things that I couldn't do in the Rebus books.
Witch Hunt  was about a female assassin who goes after a Member of Parliament in the UK. Bleeding Hearts  was about a male assassin, who's being tracked by a really dodgy private eye. And the last one was called Blood Hunt . What was that one about? I think it was about the beef scare in Britain and a government cover-up, with people dying under mysterious circumstances.
And that was all I wrote of those. Thrillers take a lot of time and research, because thriller readers demand lots of detail.
More than regular crime fiction readers do, you think?
Oh, absolutely. In thrillers, the forensic details are important and people don't just pick up a gun, they pick up a certain kind of gun and you have to tell the kind of ammo you're using. Whereas in the Rebus books, because I know Edinburgh so well, I can just skate through a lot of the details. It's easier.
Do you see yourself continuing to write the Rebus novels, or are there other books you'd like to compose, as well?
Oh, I've got loads of ideas for books that aren't about Rebus. I've got a contract for two more Rebuses. But he lives in real time; he was 38 in Knots & Crosses and he's 52 now. He'll have to retire at 55. So I reckon I've got another five or six Rebus books, max.
Then... well, I did a couple of radio plays for the BBC, black comedies set in 18th-century Edinburgh. They featured a guy called Cullender; the name is a Scots word for a colander -- apt, because I visualized him as a "moral sieve" (i.e., his morals aren't watertight). I would love to write a book about him. Edinburgh in the late 18th century was a real hotbed, because all of the Parisian aristocracy were moving to Edinburgh to get away from the guillotines. And you had these people called "caddies" -- the term "golf caddy" comes originally from this. A caddie was like a servant you would rent for a day or so. Say you were visiting town; well, you'd pick up a caddie as soon as you arrived and he would show you the best place to stay, where to eat, where to drink. He'd run errands for you and he would see you home safely at night, so you didn't get hit over the head and robbed. Cullender was a caddie and I thought it was a great character -- like a modern-day private eye, because he's got access to the high people, and he's got access to the dens of iniquity.
Which other crime or mystery novelists do you read?
I like a lot of American writers. I like Michael Connelly. I like Larry Block. I like most of the Jameses: James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, James W. Hall. I also like Andrew Vachss, although I actually like the reason why he writes -- to sponsor his law practice -- more than I like some of his books. In the UK, I like Val McDermid. Also Ruth Rendell; I think there's nothing she can't do.
Tell me how you look at Edinburgh. The reader gets a certain idea of what the city is like from reading your novels. But do you really see it as so dark and gloomy a place?
I'm a pretty pessimistic sort of guy. I'm attracted to the dark side. It doesn't matter which city in the world you set me down in, after five minutes of aimless wandering, I'll be in the sleaze section of town -- I'm a magnet for that kind of stuff. And I think that by dealing with this darkness in fiction, in real life I can be a happy, well-adjusted guy. I think a lot of crime writers would be very seriously unstable people if they weren't able to deal with their fantasies, fears, whatever on paper.
But about Edinburgh: it's got a very dark history. It's a very repressed city, a very Calvinist, Presbyterian place. As opposed to Glasgow, which seems to be very Celtic and open and brash and loud. Even the crime in Edinburgh is different from what you see in Glasgow. Glasgow crime tends to be easily identified and solved. Maybe you're wearing the wrong football colors and you get stabbed to death -- that's a typical Glasgow crime. But in Edinburgh, the typical crime is grave robbing. Things happen under cloak of darkness. It's a place of conspiracies, a city with a village mentality, where everybody knows everybody else.
How do Edinburgh residents feel about the way you portray their city in these books?
For some reason, the Edinburgh people love them, though I think the Tourist Board is unlikely to recommend them. Even the cops like my books, although I make the occasional mistake. Some of the villains I've met like them. It's no accident that last year, I had eight out of the top-10 Scottish bestsellers. Somebody recently called Rebus "the Harry Potter of Noir."
You know, don't you, that the Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling, also lives in Edinburgh? This place that was totally fuckin' barren of writers back in the 80s when I was starting now has Rowling; Irvine Welsh, who wrote Trainspotting; Ian Banks, who writes science fiction and literary novels; Dorothy Dunnett, who writes historical fiction; and me. You want any sort of literature, Edinburgh's got it. By comparison, Glasgow just seems to be starting out as a home to authors.
Well, there's Denise Mina, who wrote last year's wonderful novel Garnethill. And then there was William McIlvanney, who wrote Laidlaw (1977) and a couple of sequels.
Yeah, but McIlvanney has stopped writing crime fiction. He says he wrote those books for the money, and then didn't want to write anymore. McIlvanney was important to me in the early days, because he was a proper, grown-up "literary" writer who wrote crime fiction. And I thought: If it's OK for him, then it's OK for me.
What about Quintin Jardine? He also writes books set in Edinburgh: Skinner's Ghosts, Skinner's Ordeal, etc.
On the record? On the record, they're dreadful. [Laughs]
So what do you think of them off the record?
No, I can't go on with that. His are just a different kind of book. They're well written and he's got a good audience. They're just not the kind of crime novel I go for, let's put it that way. I mean, [Deputy Chief Constable Bob] Skinner, his character, gets almost nothing wrong. By comparison, Rebus gets almost nothing right and if he gets it right, it's for all the wrong reasons and he feels guilty about it.
Yet Rebus wouldn't be the character that he is without those traits. He's a rich, wonderfully drawn, but very flawed figure.
And I think it's the flaws that people like about him. You know, every time I do a gig in Scotland, someone stands up -- usually a woman of a certain age -- and says, "Can't Rebus settle down, stop smoking, stop drinking and get some decent grub inside him?" And for every person who does that, 10 others stand up and say, "No, no, he's the only character in modern fiction who makes me feel healthy and wise." | January 2000
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.