“I’ve grown old with Rebus.” Northern Soul talks to best-selling crime author Ian Rankin
When the best-selling crime writer Ian Rankin brings his Investigating Murder: An Evening with Ian Rankin to Manchester’s HOME, the intention, he says, is not simply to talk about his new book In A House Of Lies (incidentally, one of the best thrillers of the year if you ask me) then sign some copies. In a rather delicious plot twist, Rankin will be joined on stage by people at the coalface of crime.
The first 45 mins will mainly be a Q&A session with Rankin about his new book, and he is always splendidly forthright and entertaining at such things. But the second half will be a panel discussion about police work and forensic investigations with the author joined by two panellists, Clare Mackintosh and Professor Dame Sue Black. Mackintosh spent 12 years in the police force, including time on CID and as a public order commander, before penning the best-selling thrillers I Let You Go and I See You. Anatomist and forensic anthropologist Black, meanwhile, is the best-selling author of All That Remains who, believe me, has the funniest story you’ll ever hear involving a severed head.
“She’s fantastic,” Rankin confirms. “The first event I ever did with her was at a school in the West of Scotland and she had the kids absolutely enthralled talking about things like cyber security, online trolling and how even a photograph of a hand can give enough information to identify a suspect, plus her experiences from being in places like Kosovo, war crimes, the whole gamut. All of that is meat and drink to the crime writer, of course, so I’m standing there taking notes for my next book.”
The set-up has been inspired by an event in Edinburgh last year to celebrate the 13th anniversary of his Inspector Rebus character.
Rankin explains: “That featured me alongside a retired detective, a serving police detective and a forensic anthropologist, all talking about their jobs, how crime fiction deals with real jobs like theirs, how policing has changed, and how technology has changed. Normally when you go to a book event, especially with a crime writer, they’re just talking about their book, or just talking to another crime writer about fiction. So to actually get some professionals in there, talking about what crime writers get right, what they get wrong, what you can and cannot do in fiction that you can do in real life and vice-versa was just a completely fresh take and people liked it so much that we thought we would try and replicate it this year.”
The theme of how much policing has changed is one reflected in his new book, In A House of Lies. “I love the fact that Rebus is a dinosaur and that his style of policing just does not work anymore. He used to have a network of informers and when he tries to track them down, they have all got old and died. The pubs where he used to hang out and get information have all become wine bars or coffee shops. So, the world has changed, and the world of policing has changed, the way that crime is investigated has changed, the way that murder is investigated has changed and, of course, the world of forensics has come along. There’s technology like CCTV, mobile phone records, GPS and so on, that didn’t exist even five or ten years ago but is available to the police now. The crime writer has got to be aware of that because the readers sure as heck are.
“It used to be the case that I’d know a fair number of detectives and retired detectives who’d want to be writers. The problem was they didn’t know what to leave out, and the thing about police investigation of a crime is that it can be pretty boring and laborious. As a crime writer, I’ve got to give a sense that all this boring stuff is happening somewhere else, just off the page, but that we’re going to focus on the exciting stuff.”
That focus on narrative pace became clear to Rankin after some early time-wasting mishaps. “Now, when I write the first draft of the book I write it very quickly, it takes between 30 and 40 days. If there’s a point at which I’ll need to do research I’ll just make a little note on that page, then just keep writing. At the end of the first draft, I’ll look back at the book and say ‘okay, what I really need to know is x, y and z’. At that point, I’ll go and do the research and put it in, not put in months of research on a topic and then find that I only need two sentences about it. Working the way I work, I think, makes for a kind of fast read.”
He continues: “Although I have to admit I do find it both flattering and really annoying when people get in touch with me and say, ‘I really liked your book and read it in a day, when’s the next one out?’ You think ‘hang on, that took me months to write. Go back and read it again, more slowly this time’.”
Notably, Rankin’s Rebus novels aged the detective in real-time, which eventually meant he had to be retired. Now the author has to find plausible ways of involving the character in police investigations.
“Well, I like the fact that I’ve given myself a challenge by retiring Rebus once and for all, so that he is no longer a cop. He feels he wants to be useful and he feels like a detective to his very bones but he’s not a cop anymore. He doesn’t have an ID, he can’t just wander into police stations and drag in suspects to interview and stuff. So, he’s got to find different ways of inveigling himself into a police enquiry and that keeps the series fresh, I think.
“In A House Of Lies involves a murder enquiry, where the body has lain in the boot of a car for over a decade and Rebus was involved in the original missing persons enquiry. So, as well as investigating a murder in the present day, the police are also looking at why the original enquiry didn’t find the body – and that involves Rebus.”
On the other hand, he feels no compunction to involve his other key characters, D.I. Siobhan Clarke, Rebus’s nemesis the crime boss ‘Big Ger” Cafferty, or the investigator Malcolm Fox, although they happen to all play key roles in In A House Of Lies. “What happens is that I’ll get a story, but I never know until I start writing it who’s going to be needed to tell that particular story.”
Rankin owes his publishers one more book, but it doesn’t have to be a Rebus novel. Meanwhile, the erstwhile tough guy Rebus of In A House Of Lies is very much in his twilight years and has taken to ruminating on his past. Rankin has even given him some infirmities.
“He’s in his mid-to-late sixties and Cafferty, the gangster who runs Edinburgh, is at the same time in his life and the same point in his career. So yeah, these guys are looking around at a world around them which is changing rapidly, wondering if they still have a place in that world, can they still make a change to the world, can they still play a role, and do they still matter? All of that possibly reflects me getting older as well. I’ve grown old with Rebus and when he’s having trouble with the Internet, that’s me basically. I look at a screen all day, but I don’t see anything properly until I print it out and can read it on a printed page.
“So, 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.”
“I’d written a play before and it’s awfully hard work. My natural habitat is the novel with me sitting in a room and having complete control, getting to play God. But last year I didn’t publish a book. A producer approached me about a Rebus play and he suggested the playwright Rona Munro as my writing partner, so we got together and had a lot of fun just work-shopping and brainstorming and eventually coming up with a brand-new story, not an adaptation of an existing one. We wanted it to be Rebus and Cafferty, pretty much at the same point in their lives as in the books but slightly off to one side, in a slightly parallel universe. So, we’ve simplified some stuff a little bit, but it is the two of them at war with each other and it just makes a huge, fascinating night at the theatre as these two very big characters lock horns.
“That was happening all last year and early this year. I got the idea for In A House Of Lies in January this year and wrote it in between February and the end of June, at which time the play was in rehearsal, so it all dovetailed quite nicely. If you don’t know the Rebus series, I think it’s a good night at the theatre and if you do know the Rebus series there’s a lot of new material there that’s going to get you really excited.”
Investigating Murder: An Evening with Ian Rankin plus special guests is at HOME on October 15, 2018.
Rebus: Long Shadows is Manchester Opera House, October 29 to November 3, 2018.
In A House of Lies is published by Orion and available to buy now.
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