Partners in crime

Ian Rankin still enjoys hanging out with his beloved imaginary friend, he tells Greg Fleming.

Ian Rankin on Rebus: 'They like that he's grumpy; a maverick'. Photo: supplied
Ian Rankin on Rebus: 'They like that he's grumpy; a maverick'. Photo: supplied

This year, John Rebus, Edinburgh's tough, taciturn detective inspector, celebrates 30 years on the page. One imagines few would know more about him than his creator Ian Rankin, but you'd be wrong.

"Oh look, there's people out there who know Rebus a lot better than I do,'' says Rankin down the line from his Edinburgh home.

"There's so much I've forgotten; about Rebus and his relationships, about minor characters and their backgrounds. For the Rebus Festival in June we're having a pop quiz and I've got to come up with 50 questions about him. I mean, if someone set me 50 questions about Rebus I'd be lucky to get 25.''

He admits he made a mistake in one book with "Big Ger'' Cafferty - the now ageing Edinburgh gangster, Rebus' nemesis - saying he grew up in Edinburgh, when an earlier book stated Glasgow.

"That's just me screwing up.''

It's late and snowing in Edinburgh, Rankin's beloved city which he returned to in 1996.

At first Rankin sounds a little weary. Understandable, as already this year he's been on promo tours of the United States, Britain and Germany but talking about Rebus seems to energise him.

Rankin, unlike Rebus, one suspects, is very good company.

"It's gratifying that people are so passionate about this character I made up when I was a student. Actually I feel like I'm letting them down when they do meet me, because I'm not him. I'm not as interesting a character as Rebus.''

Yet he doesn't have fond memories of the first Rebus book, Knots and Crosses.

"That first book was a very dark book. I don't know exactly where it came from. It's overwritten. It reads to me like it was written by a literature student and it was indeed written by a literature student. There's hardly a sentence in it that I wouldn't change if I could.

"It was influenced by Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The reader is meant to think that Rebus is the bad guy, a potential killer. He keeps having these blackouts and he has a room in his apartment that's kept locked and we're wondering what's behind the door. I was in a pretty dark place at that time. I don't remember being very happy when I was a student.''

He's unsure what it is exactly about Rebus that keeps drawing readers back.

"I think people like that he's determined; that he's a detective to the core of his being. They like that he's grumpy; a maverick. I like hanging out with Rebus because he's a complex personality and the only way I can find out more about him is to keep writing about him.''

Rankin has introduced younger characters, Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox, to the series (Rebus is now retired from the police). Despite that, Rebus still inserts himself into investigations.

"Yeah, he can't keep away.''

And if Edinburgh comes across like a city ridden with gangsters Rankin insists it's not the case.

"Nah, this is a really safe city. The potential for someone like Cafferty to exist is there but Edinburgh is not a big enough city to have one major gangster. It's got a lot of small-time players. Cafferty I invented to represent all those small-time players. He actually owes a lot more to some of the gangsters in Glasgow in the '70s and '80s.''

Rankin has co-written a play, penned stand-alones, short stories and an entire series under the pseudonym Jack Harvey, but returns to Rebus because "a detective is a really useful way of looking at the world''.

"The more recent books have been about Rebus' ageing process. He looks around the world today and it's not making sense to him. It's changing too fast. He doesn't know what his role is any more.

"Added to that, mortality has tapped him on the shoulder. He's slower than he used to be and he's got health issues. So he's going through the same things his readers and his creator is. As I get older `I ache in the places I used to play', as Leonard Cohen once put it. So I'm dealing with that in my personal experience by giving these issues to Rebus so he, and maybe I, can work them through.''

Rankin acknowledges that the clock is ticking. Rebus is now in his early 60s, Rankin 56.

"Can you imagine Rebus at 75 in an old folks' home investigating crimes, racing around in his electric wheelchair? I have slowed the clock down quite a lot and, realistically, there's only so much I can do with him, but who knows? I've no ideas for the next book as yet.''

And a book is always kicked off by "one good idea''.

"The chronology goes like this. I get a theme I want to explore. I find the plot that allows me to do that and then I ask myself, `What characters do I need?' So far it's always been that Rebus has been the best character to front the story, but that doesn't mean to say that'll always be the case.

"Maybe next time it'll be Siobhan Clarke or maybe it's a book told from Cafferty's point of view, or maybe it's a completely different set of characters, but I won't know 'til I find out what the story is.''

He won't write a novel this year. The time's been set aside to celebrate the 30-year anniversary which brings him to the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival. If Rebus has been Rankin's road to riches - over 30 million books sold - he's also helped in other ways.

He admits that writing Rebus is a kind of therapy; I suggest that 21 books in, that's a hell of a lot of therapy.

"Yeah, maybe, I needed a lot. I've not had as much as Woody Allen though! I do use Rebus like a punchbag sometimes. I channel frustration and big questions. I give him problems to try to deal with. Being a crime writer's good because you get all that rage and frustration out of your system.

"But at the same time what I do is very childlike. I get to hang out with my imaginary friends and play role-playing games with them and write down fantasy stories.

"I get to live all these amazing adventures in my head: car chases, gunfights, corruption and sleaze. I get to live in that world but only in my imagination and on paper. That's great and it's why when you meet crime writers we tend to be pretty well grounded. We've dealt with all that dark stuff on the page.''

- By Greg Fleming of the New Zealand Herald

At the festival

Ian Rankin talks about his latest Rebus novel, Rather Be The Devil, with Prof Liam McIlvanney at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival on May 13.

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