Although crime thrillers remain in the ascendancy, Ian Rankin, whose books have sold millions of copies worldwide, believes that, with the worrying global renaissance of the right, and the creeping rise of the fear, harsh satire is plotting its way to be the “next big thing”.
“There may be a vogue for comfort reading — nice quiet books in which good things happen. But it could swing the other way,” says Rankin, the creator of the famous fictional detective Inspector John Rebus. “I can imagine brilliant satirical writers of the past giving us their take on Presidents Trump and Putin, Brexit, the collapse of old social and political orders and the rising anger, fear and confusion of the general population.”
Well, this hasn’t yet hit the readers over their heads, as crime fiction remains a bestselling genre, and grisly killings still the most shocking crime.
“Murder is the taking away of something unique and irreplaceable,” says Rankin. “This makes it the ultimate crime for many.” The elements of mystery and detection, taking on big moral themes and questions make the genre appealing, he explains. “A good crime novel has strong, charismatic and engaging characters. It has terrific sense of place. It tells us about a culture, its setting, history, social problems, politics. And we also get a gripping storyline. This makes crime fiction the complete package.”
It is perhaps unsurprisingly then that his 22nd novel featuring Rebus, In a House of Lies, published last year. The fictional Edinburgh detective Rebus was supposed to be a one-book character as the protagonist.
One of the most successful contemporary crime writers, Rankin has sold 30 millions novels and his Rebus books have been translated into more than 30 languages in three decades. They have been made into two television series as well, and another TV adaptation is on the way.
But keeping the famous detective fresh, deciding to age him in real time, more or less, has presented the consummate craftsman with many challenges. “But those challenges are also opportunities.They keep him fresh for me, and this helps keep the series fresh,” Rankin says. “Between books, there have been changes in his life. He is no longer a cop, for example, so how can he inveigle himself into criminal investigations?”
The ageing protagonist has health issues, so is no longer the very physical and threatening character he once was, he adds. In place of this, he uses guile and experience to help him solve the case. “Additionally Scotland and the UK keep evolving, and the ability of the police to solve crime progresses, and the types of crime change too.”
“I could not have written about cybercrime at the beginning of the series, as it did not yet exist!,” he says.
In stingingly topical style, in In a House of Lies, which sees Rebus’s past come back to haunt him in the form of a cold case, Rankin touches upon the social media in relation to crime.
“Social media can be pernicious, and it isn’t hard to find criminal activity on the internet,” he says, adding that social media also presents the police with new tools. “They can communicate to a wide community, flag up missing persons or show CCTV of suspected criminals. It also breathes life into old crimes. Remember when blackmail meant surreptitious photographs sent by mail to figures in authority? Nowadays, it’s all waiting to be exploited online.”
Rebus novels are strong on police procedure, quotidian detail, and criminal inquiry, but Rankin reveals he doesn’t have a large network of contacts to get details right, but there’s always someone he can question. “I don’t hang out with police officers on a daily or weekly basis. I don’t want my stories to become PR exercises. But professionals, not just police officers but also pathologists, forensic scientists, have always been gracious enough to answer my questions or show me how their job is done.”
To him, the very best crime novels are as good as anything in the canon of literature, and his favourite of his own books is Black and Blue, published in 1997. “It was the first of my ‘mature’ books, in that the books before it were an apprenticeship; I was getting to know what the crime novel can and cannot do,” says Rankin, whose favourites by other authors are Laidlaw by William McIlvanney, The Long Drop by Denise Mina and The Dry by Jane Harper.
“But I would also claim the likes of Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde and Bleak House as crime novels, and some authors write series that are so satisfying it is hard to pick a particular book, I’m thinking here of Philip Kerr, Ruth Rendell and Michael Connelly.”
Jekyll and Hyde was a huge influence on him, his first Inspector Rebus novel was an attempt to update the themes in that book, Rankin says. Laidlaw was also an influence — a gritty Scottish crime novel written with great eloquence and compassion. “James Ellroy’s style would eventually be a huge influence on my mid-period work,” he says.
The busyness and business of being a writer, with a good bit of readings, festivals, conferences thrown between, Rankin, who has published 25 novels so far, says while writing a book, he writes sometimes long into the evening. “That way, the first draft gets written quickly and this injects pace into the narrative… I tend not to forget where the story is heading next.”
He writes either at home or in his holiday home in the north of Scotland, in a fishing village with no phone signal and no television. “It’s a bliss,” he says. “No one ever sees my first drafts — they are too rough and ready. My wife usually sees the second draft and I take her feedback onboard before writing a third draft, which then goes to my publisher.”
“The whole process takes around six months. I tend to do the bulk of my research after I’ve written the first draft — again, this speeds up the production process.”
From early on, Rankin says, he wanted to use the detective novel to explore the society around him — from top to bottom. A police officer has access to every layer of society from the politicians and the owners of corporations to the dispossessed and disenfranchised. The detective moves between these worlds; no doors remain closed to him; secret lives are revealed. “Often our societies look well-ordered and ‘safe’, but scratch the surface and you begin to see the problems, injustices and human failings and frailties.”
Interestingly, in the past Rankin acknowledged Rebus is to some extent his alter ego. Over the years, has he become more like Rebus?
“I’m not sure if I have become more like him. I do suffer the usual aches and pains associated with the ageing process; my memory is not what it was. But I am in general good health,” says the 57-year-old author.
And thankfully, he’s never been quite as cynical as Rebus or quite as pessimistic about the state of the world. “We share the same taste in music and we are fascinated by Edinburgh — past and present. But I’ve never quite been him, or he me.”
Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.
Ian Rankin will take part in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature to be held from March 1-9 at the InterContinental, Dubai Festival City.