T HERE'S a serious trade-off in being "a genre writer", confides Scotland's - and many say Britain's - premier crime novelist Ian Rankin. "You have to put up with the sniggering and superiority of the playwrights and the poets in the pub, for one thing." You could quash that by waving your bank balance at them, I suggest. "I'm far more literary - I threaten them with physical violence ... and then you hear the sweetest words in the language: 'But I'm a pacifist'. You know you can't lose then," he laughs.
Rankin, of course, has a lot to laugh about these days. His poularity and reputation soar each year, as do his sales. He recently had six of the top 10 bestselling books in Scotland, he has a radio show on the BBC, his Inspector Rebus novels are about to become a Prime Suspect-type television series (starring Sliding Doors actor John Hannah) and he's in demand at international writing festivals.
This week, 12 years after the first Rebus, Knots and Crosses (an updated Jekyll-and-Hyde tale that strayed unwittingly into crime fiction), Rankin releases his 12th novel in the series. For fans, the good news is that Dead Souls maintains the sage, with Rebus continuing his raw-end-of-town unveiling as a complex of prickly flaws and admirable obsession. Truth and justice the Edinburgh way requires lateral thought and two-fisted directness - and who better for the task than this ageing, post-nervous breakdown, ex-SAS unreformed alcohol and nicotine junkie, a brooding 60s rock obsessive and self-confessed failure as a human being, husband and father?
As usual with Rankin, the subplots are meticulous, landscapes drip atmosphere, lead characters and bit players have flesh. "I am mainly interested in motivation," he confesses. "The crimes are just the excuse, all that hoodwinking and red-herring stuff. Sometimes I wish I could reveal it all on Page One and then say 'Right, now let's get on with the story'.
"Loose ends should be allowed more," he sighs, "because life's like that. The trouble is of course that many readers want a contained universe in which logic and rational thought will always solve the problems. Still, a lot of us are out there busily trying to transcend the genre, or at least blur the edges ..."
Nevertheless, in classic mystery, the crime is the past acting on the present, which is also Rebus's internal fixation. How much of Rebus is Rankin? "I was 23 and a student when I started him. No kids, no career, no wife, no car. He was 37 and had all of them. But he ages only a year every three or four books,so I'm catching up fast - and I do understand him better now, especially that dark Celtic side. He was virtually a cypher in the first book but he's becoming more human and more flawed as we go along. His after-midnight brooding to music in the dark, that's me. So is the pre-dawn driving around and staring out across cliffs and lakes. But not so much these days, not when you have to get up at 7 for the kids. No time in real life for tormented theatrics or Celtic darknesses."
And that Rebus tendency to encapsulate situations and emotions by references to bands or songs from the late 60s and 70s? "It's not my generation," says Rankin, "but it's certainly my influence. That's what comes from having a sister so much older. I did have a few aberrations when I was growing up, a flirtation with Hawkwind for instance, but generally that's the music I listen to. I've a friend who has similar nerdy musical tastes, so now I trawl the rock encyclopedias to find increasingly obscure bands who had one hit for three minutes. It drives him mad."
When's the Rebus album coming out, I ask. Silence, then quietly, "funny you should mention that. I was in the pub the other night with (novelist) Iain Banks and he's just released an Iain Banks Album to accompany his books. A Rebus album would be a good idea, wouldn't it - as long as I didn't have to trawl for the rights."
IT'S a "very Spring-like, mild Edinburgh morning" when I ring - Rankin and his Belfast-born wife Miranda are just brewing the "blissful hour of resting calmly" coffee after the Monday chaos of getting their sons to school. Yesterday it was 12C and the "crocuses are coming up everywhere - we've even got flowers in our garden" he brags. "Just a minute," he says when I ask what they are. I hear him walk to the window before returning, laughing. "None there anymore, the squirrels have dug them up."
Now 39, Rankin was born (as was Rebus) in the Fife mining town of Cardenden, the son of a Rosyth Dockyard map-preparer and a canteen lady. His older sister married when he was 11, which left him as an only child in effect in a town "thrown-together in the 1930s after coal was discovered there. It was so slapped up that they didn't even have street names, just numbers - our family lived in 17 Street. By the time I was born, coal prices had plummeted and it was a very impoverished. We called it Car-Dead-End and had to remake it as a fictional world just to survive ...the slag heaps became Krakatoa, for instance."
His childhood world was largely informed by comics. "At school, essays were the one thing I was really good at, so I decided to make my own comics.Then I found out I couldn't draw. Bit of a drawback, it was." Not today, I suggest, if you look at South Park or Beavis and Butthead. "Trouble is," he laughs, "I was a pre post-modernist cartoonist." He sidesteps questions about youthful inclinations other than to mention that "my main interest from the age of 12 was in trying to get in to X-certificate films - actually that's also when I first became interested in reading because I discovered that they censored films like Clockwork Orange but not the books. You could read anything - so I became a voracious reader."
Writing was inevitable after that. "I've always been an obsessive, an artistic control freak - I couldn't just read comics, I had to make my own, I couldn't just listen to music, I had to make up my own band and lyrics and songs, I couldn't just read ..."
The imaginative impulse he blames on his father, "a story-teller who would never tell the truth if a lie would suffice - I used to think he was making up stories but then I realised he was extrapolating from his own life. And that's what writers do. They have this idea they can create a universe they can control. And no matter how way out the situation, there's always some part of the writer's soul and character in the book somewhere."
Before bestsellerdom, he supplemented his income by work as a tax collector, alcohol researcher and grape-picker. He was also a lyricist for an imaginary band (Kaput) and "a vocalist (Ian Kaput) for Fife's "second-best" punk band, The Dancing Pigs. "Ask how many punk bands there were in Fife," he commands. Two? "Of course. The other was called The Skids - I don't know if that has the same crude underwear reference in Australia or not - and they metamorphosed into Big Country and went on to great success. We didn't - 'artistic differences' closed us down after our drummer left to become a quantity surveyor. Very punk, that."
The Pigs did find belated stardom in Dead Souls, though, when Rankin resurrected them as a U2-ish supergroup. "The boys in the band would enjoy that - if they ever read the book," he chortles.
He met Miranda, at Edinburgh University where they studied English. After graduation she returned to Belfast and he stayed on (8 years all together) to do a PhD in Scottish literature. "I was supposed to be concentrating on the works of Muriel Spark but my real interest was in writing my own. In three years I completed four novels of which two were published. But when the PhD grant money ran out, so did I." To London, to marry Miranda, who had become private secretary to MP Francis Maud (now shadow chancellor).
It was 1986 and the plan was that Miranda would support him while he wrote. He tried it for a year but found it unproductive - "too much responsibility, perhaps ... I was just wasting the weeks, mooching around and getting depressed." So he found a job at the National Folk Tale Centre as an oral folk-tale collector, then scored an editorship of a hi-fi magazine with its "glorious tons of payola - all that hi-fi equipment and CDs". His literary enthusiasm returned and he wrote "like a madman", short stories, radio plays, half a dozen non-crime books in the evenings and weekends, including "a Graham Greene-ish spy novel and three airport thrillers as Jack Harvey".
Four years later, they headed for France "for a year or so" to live in the Dordogne. "Pride makes me stress that we were in the unfashionable, hippy end of the market there, in an old farmhouse miles from any shops and way away from the communities of cravat-wearing what-ho Englishmen that have invaded the area." Jack (now 7) and Kit (nearly 5) were born there, and after a chance remark from a reader encouraged him to resurrect the Rebus character, "I spent the next six years in an attic covered in postcards and street maps of Edinburgh, writing two books a year set in a hometown of my memory. It was that Joyce thing of distance allowing clarity."
By 1996 and after nine Rebus novels, it was time to go home "just as I was starting to get beyond bonjour. Miranda spoke fluent French, but I didn't - I have enough trouble with English. I started to pick some of the language up once we got a TV though, I'd watch the X-Files with a dictionary on my lap saying 'slow down fellas' while I'd look up a word. When we saw a series repeat later at home, I realised I'd made up an entirely different show - and mine was better."
Home is now the relatively up-market suburb of Newington, 20 minutes from Princess St snd the haunts of John Rebus. "All fur coat and nae knickers - that's Edinburgh" is how one Glaswegian puts it in one book. And despite its apparent authenticity, Rankin's Edinburgh is really an illusion, a city of smoke and mirrors, the underbelly of the burghered beautiful. "Public probity and private vice, someone once said - it's what makes Edinburgh so attractive a setting for me. There's something so furtive about crime here - it inspires thoughts of cover-ups and conspiracy theories. I couldn't set it in Glasgow, for instance - it's only 35 miles away geographically but it's a thousand miles away in angst and anger. There's three times the murders there but they are all passion killings or muggings gone wrong."
Three years ago, Rankin stirred up the literati with accusations of genre snobbishness: "Some of today's most serious issues are being dealt with only in crime fiction," he said then, yet its authors are still ghettoised "I want to be the British Don DeLillo," he challenged, "and I'm still young enough and thick-headed enough to take risks." He laughs quietly about it now, suggesting that in some ways too much notice is taken of crime writing - even if its exponents are still not Booker Prize nominees. Besides, all serious literary writing today - even DeLillo's - is essentially crime-based.
As for him, "I thought writing would get easier but it gets harder - you've got to stay ahead of the competition, the young bloods coming through." And ahead of yourself? "That's true - my first book took only six weeks with no research whatsoever. Then I used to work 12-hour writing days, two books a year. Now they take nine months and with the kids I can only get in a 5-hour working day. But you want to improve each time, and the research is more involved. In fact it's becoming more fun than the writing.
He has become a three-draft man: "The first is a very rough and shaggy beast, just getting to know the characters and the motivation. The second is a complete overhaul where logic starts to play a role. The third is a finessing, a finalising rewrite." When he finally sends it to his editor, she praises him with "This is very good Ian, the best you've written" comments. "And then comes an 18-page fax of questions and suggestions," he snorts ironically.
That's the nice thing about Rankin: while he's a serious practitioner, he doesn't take himself too seriously. He plays games in his novels too - the name Rebus was "a smart-arse undergraduate joke" that proved forensically apt in both meanings, a puzzle in which a word solution is deduced from pictorial clues, and derivation: de rebus quae geruntur, concerning the things taking place.
And he uses real places and real people, if not their real occupations. The landlord of his local Oxford Bar, for instance, is a pathology professor. "The regulars are fed up with his boasting, and have started a collection to bribe me to kill him off. It'll have to be a substantial kitty though, seeing I'm on free beer there as long as I keep him alive."
The Oxford, of course, is distinguished by three things Rebus fans would recognise: a picture of Robbie Burns in full Masonic regalia, a portrait of previous owner Willy Young, an Albert Steptoe lookalike who "wouldn't serve you if you had an English accent or were a woman", and Harry the "rudest barman in Scotland". Rankin put the latter in Dead Souls "and he was very rude about it".
Recently, he took Harry on a pilgrimage back to his Cardenden local "and from a position of considerable authority he pronounced it 'the second-worst pub in the world'. I had to agree - it was 4.30pm and everybody in there wanted to fight. Even the toothless pensioner with the zimmer frame offered to take us 'outside'."
This article was first published in The Weekend Australian Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1999
For more on Ian Rankin, go to the Scottish Writers Project web site
Murray Waldren's latest book The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa (HarperCollins) is available from all good book stores, including: Gleebooks Shearers Bookshop Readings Better Read Than Dead Dymocks Angus & Robertson Borders The Co-op Bookshop Australian Online Bookstore Booktopia Seekbooks The Nile The Book Abyss
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