Ian Rankin: accidental crime

As he shifts Rebus out of his comfort zone, Ian Rankin says he didn’t intend to become a crime writer. But how would his retired detective would have coped with lockdown?

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It would be easy to assume that the title of Ian Rankin’s latest Rebus novel A Song For The Dark Times must refer to the pandemic and its consequences.

But in fact the 24th book in his best-selling series was finished pre-Covid-19 and only needed some editing during lockdown.

“I’ve no idea what I’m going to do next. It doesn’t have to be anything.”

“The book was conceived at a time when I was thinking about the rise of the right, especially in Eastern Europe, as Brexit was polarising opinions in the UK, and all sorts of things were happening that were making the world seem an even uglier place,” he says. “So the dark times as I envisaged them was a time of Trump and Brexit, a time of political extremism that I thought was about as dark as it was going to get.

“I certainly didn’t know then that Covid was around the corner and everything was going to get even worse!”

The book started, as most of them have since the series began in 1987, with Rankin sifting through “a big folder in my office full of bits of paper that I’ve written rough ideas on, as well as things that I’ve cut out of magazines and newspapers. There were a couple of cuttings in there that related to the internment camps in the UK during World War Two, when we in Britain used to lock people up just because they were born outside the UK.

“The first cutting was from about 2006 and there was another one from about 2015, so they had been sitting in my file for years, as they often do, before there was a lightbulb moment as I realised that that generalised fear of the stranger or people who aren’t just like us is beginning to make a comeback in some political cultures. That was what got the motor running.”

Influenced by the way his early writing hero Muriel Spark, best known for her 1961 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, had shown Edinburgh as a place where “on the surface everything was hunky-dory but underneath were all these fears and tensions”, throughout the Rebus series he’s used his irascible main character, ageing in real time and just a bit older than his creator, to explore the dark side of the city.

“What she’d said just clicked with me,” he remembers. “I thought, Edinburgh’s still a city that has light and shade, where there’s the potential for terrible things to happen just below the surface. That was where Rebus came from, a character who allowed me to explore both sides of the city, someone who would have access to the light and the dark, the Jekyll and the Hyde. Once I’d invented him he just refused to go away, so I became a crime writer by accident, while trying to write the great Scottish novel.”

This new book, though, is the first Rebus novel in many years that isn’t largely set in Edinburgh. Instead it finds the now retired Inspector John Rebus on the north coast of Scotland where, much to the chagrin of the local cops, he’s taken it upon himself to investigate an intensely personal case centred on the disappearance of his semi-estranged daughter’s husband.

“Rebus being retired gives me challenges, although some might call them problems,” Rankin readily acknowledges. “One is how does a retired person of a certain age manage to inveigle themselves into a police enquiry? I’d wanted to do something with Rebus’s daughter for a while and knew that she lived up on the north coast of Scotland. He’s now a grandparent but he doesn’t see much of his granddaughter. So I wanted to do something with them and get him back to his family again to a certain extent. I thought: If something has happened to her or maybe to her partner way up there, then Rebus would go scurrying north to see if he could help.

“But Rebus isn’t a cop anymore. He’s an OAP somewhere he’s got no support network and so he’s just getting in the way as far as the young cops investigating the case are concerned.

“That takes him out of his comfort zone and that takes me out of my comfort zone. I’m no longer dealing with Edinburgh and he’s no longer dealing with a city that he knows like the back of his hand. That was fun because it stops me becoming lazy, and made the series feel fresh to me.”

There have been other changes too since we last saw Rebus. Like the music-loving author himself, Rebus has downsized and had to get rid of many of his beloved LPs and CDs.

“He’s got a condition called COPD, which used to be called emphysema, and he’s been living since the series began in the same block of flats, up two flights of stairs. With COPD that becomes problematic, so I knew that he would probably have to move to a ground floor but I didn’t really want to move him out of the neighbourhood, just because it’s hard work for me to move him to a different part of town.

“So, yes, all that stuff about sorting out the CDs and LPs – I’d been through all of the ‘I’ve got no room for that so it’s got to go’ and that definitely got channelled to Rebus. But, unlike him, I moved from one part of Edinburgh to another, where it just so happens that Cafferty, the gangster who runs Edinburgh, lives in the books.

“I think a psychologist could make much of the fact that Rebus can’t move from where I lived when I was an impoverished student but I now live next door to the gangster figure!

“Rebus is in his mid to late sixties and Cafferty is at the same time in his life and the same point in his career. So these guys are looking at a world around them which is changing rapidly, wondering if they still have a place in that world, and do they still matter? All of that possibly reflects me getting older as well. I’m a little bit of a throwback like Rebus. But he’s just a little bit older than me and I’ve given him these health issues as well. He’s not exactly the character we used to know. As we all do, he got older and he aches in the places he used to play. Again, I enjoy that challenge and it keeps the series fresh for me.”

Since the preceding Rebus book In A House Of Lies, he and his nemesis, Cafferty, have also been explored in a stage play, Rebus: Long Shadows, that was successful enough to warrant a sequel. Or maybe.

“There is a script that a playwright – not Rona Munro this time, she’s been too busy – and I have been working on, on and off, for months and it’s gone to a producer. But of course, theatres are still dark so that’s just sitting there waiting for things to improve and hopefully there will be a new Rebus play next year some time, finger’s crossed.

There’s also been a 10-minute TV monologue, Rebus: Lockdown Blues.

“That was a really interesting one because when lockdown came lots of Rebus fans got in touch with me and said: ‘How would Rebus deal with this? He’s got health conditions so he’d have to isolate. How would he deal with being in a flat on his own?’ So I was thinking about that and then the National Theatre of Scotland got in touch and asked me: ‘Would you like to write a 10 minute monologue that will deal with an element of the lockdown?’ They said ‘We’ve got Brian Cox to play Rebus’ and that just blew my mind. Way back at the beginning of the series, if there had been TV interest back then – which there wasn’t – I would have loved for Brian Cox to have played Rebus. He’s the one guy I had in mind.”

Meanwhile, a two hour pilot script exists for a 10 or 12-hour long-form Rebus TV series, written by the renowned Gregory Burke.

“It’s pretty good, I think, but it’s been with the TV companies for a long time and nothing’s moving as far as I know,” Rankin sighs. “It’s out of my hands and I wish it weren’t but we’ve just got to sit and wait.”

As he’s now out of contract with his publishers, we also need to wait and see if this might actually be the last Rebus book. “I’ve literally got no idea as I talk to you what I’m going to do next,” he insists. “Will it be a Rebus book, a non-Rebus book – I honestly don’t know. It doesn’t have to be anything and if you talk to my wife she’d say: ‘Come on now, Ian, take it easy, let’s go and take a few holidays.’ But I’ve always written. As a kid and in my teens and twenties I did it for fun. I’ve just always really enjoyed the process of hanging out with fictional characters and having adventures with them. That’s still the way I am, and when I sit down to write something, I still try to find the same Ian who as a guy in his teens and twenties just did it for fun.

“This virus shows us how fragile we are and how connected we are. That’s a message novelists have been exploring since the birth of the novel.”

A Song For The Dark Times is out now, published by Orion

‘Murdering songs for fun’

Several of Rankin’s Rebus books are named after Rolling Stones’ songs and Kickback City, a posthumous Rory Gallagher package, featured his novella The Lie Factory. He recorded and performed with the late Jackie Leven, who even had a song called The Haunting Of John Rebus.

Rankin also writes and performs with his own band, Best Picture.

“Live music in the small sweaty cellars where we used to play is going to be one of the last things to emerge from the lockdown,” he says. “We had a lot of fun and we’ve got original songs that we would love to record. But we’ve got two problems. One is that we’ve all got day jobs and the other problem is that both the rhythm and lead guitarists
in my band are in another band called Fat Cops, fronted by Al Murray. They recorded an album, did festivals and were touring, so there was a long time when we just couldn’t get together for rehearsals or to go into the studio. So I’m afraid Best Picture are on the back-burner.”

But he’s not the only UK crime writer who loves to rock out live.

As Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, his fellow crime writers Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Doug Johnstone, Chris Brookmyre, Stuart Neville and Luca Veste have been, as they say, “murdering songs for fun in front of anyone who will listen”, mostly after hours at crime writing festivals, although they have played at the Glastonbury Festival.

An unlikely special guest at their 2019 Harrogate Crime Writing Festival late-night show was Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, lustily contributing “whooh, whoohs” to their version of Sympathy For The Devil.

Billingham, whose bestselling series of novels feature country music-loving Detective Tom Thorne, has also collaborated with acclaimed Americana duo My Darling Clementine on an album and live show called The Other Half.

Rankin, incidentally, says that his joining Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers “was never on the cards. There’s already too many of them. Even The Rolling Stones were told that six of them was one too many. So they had to get rid of their original piano player, poor old Ian Stewart. He came from my hometown of Fife, as it happens.”

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