Prime suspect

ONCE I had cut the ribbon, it was official: Ian Rankin Court existed. It was August 2004. I'd been contacted earlier in the year by the housebuilder, seeking my agreement in the naming of the street. I'd argued that Rankin Court or maybe even Rebus Court would be more seemly, but he'd managed to persuade me otherwise.

Friends who knew I was coming back to Cardenden for the ceremony had already alerted me to the six-figure prices attached to this new housing development, sited where a builders' yard had once stood. Six figures: and none of our parents had even owned their own homes. I was shown around the development. Some of the gardens backed on to a trickling stream. It ran through the Den, a spot we had all been taken to on school outings. Denend Primary sat just the other side of the railway bridge. I'd won my first literary prize of any kind thanks to my primary school. In my final year at high school, I'd been sent back to Denend to shadow one of the teachers - just in case it gave me a taste for the profession. (It didn't.) One day, however, among the morning announcements, I saw mention of a nationwide poetry contest. I decided to enter, wrote a poem called 'Euthanasia' for the occasion, and won second prize.

Plenty of water had trickled through the Den since then, and a lot had changed in the town of my youth. I'd arrived ahead of schedule, driving from Edinburgh. With over half an hour to spare, I decided to revisit the cul-de-sac where I'd grown up. It's called Craigmead Terrace, and the Rankins had lived at number 17 from the year it was built (1960; also the year I was born) until my father's death in 1990. The front garden of our old home had become a parking space. but otherwise the street seemed little different. The same could not be said of the damp and unlovely flats in the streets behind, which had disappeared, replaced by terraced housing. Auchterderran Junior High, which I'd attended for a couple of my teenage years, was no longer a school. And my village had ceased to have its own postal identity many years before. As a kid, I'd known the place as Bowhill. It formed part of what old-timers called the ABCD - Auchterderran, Bowhill, Cardenden and Dundonald. The four distinct parishes had become one - Cardenden - in the early 1970s, as far as the authorities were concerned. This had been at a time, I seem to remember, when there had been further plans to split the Kingdom of Fife in half, with the northern section coming under Dundee's remit and the southern part owing allegiance to Edinburgh. A fierce local campaign was launched, with the blessing of the famously anti-royalist MP Willie Hamilton, and Fife - "the Kingdom of Fife" - was eventually saved.

John Rebus grew up in Cardenden. In fact, he grew up in Bowhill, in the same cul-de-sac as me, if the books are to be believed: "Rebus had been born in a prefab but brought up in a terrace much like this one." (Dead Souls, p36.) In The Black Book we learn that Rebus's father was born in a miner's row. My own father's family had lived in just such a house, built quickly and in long rows to identical designs. These were thrown up in order to get as many men into the area as possible in the early 20th century, when the demand for coal seemed insatiable: "Cardenden had grown up around coal, hurried streets constructed in the 1920s and 1930s to house the incoming miners. These streets hadn't even been given names, just numbers. Rebus's family had moved into 13th Street. Relocation had taken the family to a prefab in Cardenden, and from there to a terraced house in a cul-de-sac in Bowhill." (Dead Souls, p306.)

This was my family's own trajectory. I was born in a prefab in Cardenden, my parents moving us to Craigmead Terrace immediately after it was built. Rebus's past is inextricably linked to my own, and this can sometimes cause problems. For example, in The Black Book I say that Rebus went to school in Cowdenbeath. By the time we reach Dead Souls, some six years later, we find that he actually attended Auchterderran Secondary School, and left at 15 to enlist in the army. Both cannot be true, and comprise a conflation of my own education. I spent the first two years of my high-school education at Auchterderran, then was offered a place at Beath Senior High in Cowdenbeath. In using my own life as a template for some of Rebus's background, errors sometimes do creep in. I even had to be careful over the naming of Auchterderran: in Rebus's time it was a secondary school; by the time I arrived there its status had been altered to junior high - a blessing, in that the badge on the breast-pocket of the school blazer no longer bore the letters ASS.

Here is Rebus on the west-central Fife of the early 1990s: "Like the towns and villages around it, Cowdenbeath looked and felt depressed: closed-down shops and drab chainstore clothes. But he knew that the people were stronger than their situation might suggest. Hardship bred a bitter, quickfire humour and a resilience to all but the most terminal of life's tragedies. He didn't like to think about it too deeply, but inside he felt like he really was 'coming home'. Edinburgh might have been his base for 20 years, but he was a Fifer. 'Fly Fifers', some people called them. Rebus was ready to do battle with some very fly people indeed." (Dead Souls, p127.)

I've said in the past that I started writing the Rebus books in order to make sense of Edinburgh, my adopted home. But Fife plays a major role in several of Rebus's adventures, and comprises the majority of his memories. I wonder now if all this time I've been trying to make sense of my own upbringing, in order to better understand myself.

Not that Rebus is me, of course, and the title of this book - Rebus's Scotland - is a trick typical of a novelist. Since Rebus is not real, how can the country where he lives be real? The only way to make sense of my fictional universe is to say something of myself, showing how my autobiography merges with his, and how my sense of Scotland and Scottishness becomes his. This, then, is a story of the relationship between Rebus, his creator and Scotland. It can't be a guidebook (I lack the skills), nor can it be a history book.

I've already played another trick, of course, in that Rebus was born not in Cardenden but in a bedsit at 24 Arden Street, Marchmont, Edinburgh, in March 1985. I was a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh. As well as doing research towards my thesis (on Muriel Spark), I was also kept busy teaching some undergraduate classes and reviewing books for a local radio station. And trying to be a writer.

I'd had some success with my short stories, coming runner-up to the famed Iain Crichton Smith in a competition organised by The Scotsman. (The prize, a Sinclair Spectrum computer, had led to sleepless nights in Arden Street as I tried to complete the game Hungry Horace.) I'd also won a contest run by Radio Forth, for a story based on a true incident from my family's history (concerning a hard-drinking uncle who had stripped off one day and wandered the Sunday-afternoon streets of Lochgelly). A further anecdote, concerning an aunt who had fallen into a stream as a young girl, provided me with the opening chapter for what became a novel entitled The Flood. In March, just as I was finding out that The Flood had been accepted for publication, I got the idea for a story called Knots and Crosses, which would feature a detective called John Rebus.

The idea came to me as I sat by the fire in my student digs. My bedsit would have been the original living-room of the ground-floor flat. It was spacious and high-ceilinged and freezing. There was a single bed, and a desk and chair by the large bay window. As I sat staring into the fire, the pun "knots and crosses" came to me, and with it the notion that someone might be sending someone else little teasing puzzles in the shape of knotted pieces of string and matchstick crosses.

It didn't take me long to decide that the recipient would be a cop, the sender someone from his past, some villain bent on his destruction. I was no great reader of detective fiction, though as a teenager I'd gone through most of the Shaft books (being not old enough to see their cinema versions), and been hooked on the usual slew of TV cop shows such as Kojak, Softly Softly and The Sweeney. I was, however, interested in Scots Gothic and ballads, having been sidetracked slightly in my research by Muriel Spark's use of the supernatural and her borrowings from Scotland's dark history. I'd devoured Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner. My novel The Flood had attempted to use some of these devices to make something mythic of my home town. Now I would be able to write about the darker side of Edinburgh, past and present, by using a detective as my hero.

The way I tell it in my diary of the time, Rebus appeared almost fully formed from the outset. I gave him a self-consciously playful name (a rebus is a picture-puzzle) because I was reading a lot of semiotic and deconstructionist nonsense at the time as part of my studies. The plot demanded that his brother be a stage hypnotist, so I made his father a hypnotist, too. My own father, on the other hand, had worked in a grocer's shop most of his life, switching to an office job at Rosyth dockyard in later years. Tellingly, Rebus's mother died when he was young. I'd lost my own mother when I was 19, and channelled my loss to him. From the start, it was clear that Rebus would share much of my background, growing up in the same place. In this way, we were both outsiders in Edinburgh.

Knots and Crosses opens with Rebus standing by his father's grave in the cemetery at Cardenden. The date is April 28, which just happens to be my birthday. Rebus isn't exactly thrilled to be back in Fife, "where the old days had never been 'the good old days' ... how Rebus hated it all, this singular lack of an environment". I wish I could have told the 24-year-old me to lighten up. Cardenden might have been rough, as were most of the surrounding towns, but my own childhood was settled and safe. I would visit a friend's farm till dusk, returning home with the knees of my trousers stained green from playing football. There would be long walks into the wasteland around the mine, to smoke furtive cigarettes in the long grass, and Saturday trips to Kirkcaldy to bluff our way into X-certificate films. Bowhill had its own cinema; by the age of 13 I was tall enough to pass for an adult, and for a time could be found there every week, glued to dodgy double bills of kung fu, horror or English sauce.

Betting shops, bars and barbers: this was the town of my youth. It was a scarred but rural setting. I don't recall ever seeing any bird-life more exotic than a sparrow or thrush, or maybe a robin in winter, despite the long country walks we would take. The total population of the ABCD was only around 7,000, and everyone really did seem to know everybody else. Doors would be left unlocked so visitors could walk straight in, this practice extending to complete strangers at New Year. Two doors away from me, at number 21, lived my Uncle Math and Aunt Lizzie. Across the back fence lived one of my father's brothers, while another lived elsewhere in the town. It felt like growing up in a tribe: comforting on the one hand, but potentially stifling on the other. At least three of my aunts were called Jen or Jenny, the pot of first names seemingly low, perhaps for threat that an odd name would make one stand out from the extended tribe.

I gave John Rebus few such confusions. Their mother having died when they were not yet in their teens, Rebus and his brother Michael were raised by their father. Rebus does not seem to have made friends easily. Dead Souls shows us him in his final year at junior high. His best friend is called Mitch, and he also has a girlfriend, Janice. In returning to Cardenden in the present, to help Janice search for her missing son, Rebus is able to reflect on the town and his own past. He remembers his father drinking at the Goth (as my own father did with his circle of cronies). He also recalls a scarf with the Taj Mahal on it, which his father brought back from the Second World War (as did my own father), and a scar on his father's knee which turned out not to have been a war wound. Again, my own father sported just such a scar, and made up a story for me in which it became a war wound.

But I had no friend called Mitch; and I didn't leave school at 15 to join the army. In fact, being almost a generation younger than Rebus, it would have been impossible for me to leave school at his age, the government having raised the leaving-age in the interim. I may share some of my memories with Rebus, but we are far from being the same person, and we do not inhabit the same Scotland. Doing the job he does, he tends to deal with victims and the families of victims, with criminals and the dispossessed, many of them in the most unhappy of circumstances. This leads Rebus to see Edinburgh - to my mind one of the best and most beautiful places in the whole world - as a series of crime scenes, and to be always mistrustful of the people he meets. His Edinburgh is not mine.

I have said that I started writing about Edinburgh to make sense of the place. When I was growing up, trips to the capital were few and far between. Maybe it's that my parents just weren't adventurous, or that, never owning a car, the train timetables were against us. I can't recall a single occasion when my father brought us to the city, though my mother managed to show me the Castle and the Museum of Childhood, and would, along with our Aunt Jenny, escort my sister Linda and me to a new film or Christmas pantomime. Later on, as a teenager at Beath High, I would go with friends to prowl the various record shops, saunter down Rose Street in the mistaken belief that prostitutes might be found there, and head up the always-rakish Cockburn Street towards Greyfriars and Better Books, where fetishistic "art" magazines could be browsed. Eventually, towards the end of my school career, we'd be dressed as punks when we made these journeys, seeking out not obscure Van Der Graaf Generator bootlegs but 12-inch picture-sleeve offerings by the likes of The Heartbreakers and The Ramones.

The Edinburgh I arrived in as a student was an extension of this. In my first few terms, I haunted the record shops, and spent Wednesday afternoons (kept free of lectures so that sporting activities could prevail) in a strip bar called Tony's and a soft-core cinema on Nicolson Street. My first term was spent sharing a room with a schoolfriend in a motel on the outskirts of the city. By our second term, we'd found a room in a basement flat facing Bruntsfield Links, and eventually clubbed together with three other schoolfriends to rent a second-floor tenement flat on Morrison Street. These were not glamorous locations, and I was aware that in moving between the various flats and the university, I was seeing layers of Edinburgh and was being introduced to its underbelly.

There was a bar near the motel on Peffermill Road called something like the University Arms and it was particularly unwelcoming to students. I would tell friends that I'd asked the barman why, being so far from the university, the place merited its name.

"Because if any students come in, we rip their arms off," came the reply.

He never said any such thing, of course: I made it up, but most of my friends found the story credible. Fiction, after all, can sometimes tell truths the real world can't.

Unlike his creator, Rebus never attended university. In the early books, he has a chip on his shoulder about this, and this chip only grows larger when he finds himself surrounded by younger and younger detectives, the vast majority of whom are college-educated: "Institutes of higher education... made him feel stupid. He felt that his every movement, every utterance, was being judged and interpreted, marking him down as a clever man who could have been cleverer, given the breaks." (Hide and Seek, p46.)

In interviews I've sometimes said that Rebus represents a way my life could have gone had I not been deemed clever enough for higher education: "In Rebus's youth there had been three obvious career choices for a 15-year-old boy: the pits, the dockyard or the army." (The Black Book, p127.)

I could have added a fourth: the police. I had friends who left school at 16 or 18 and joined either the police or one of the armed services. By then, of course, mining was no longer an option. One of my sisters married an RAF technician, and both her sons eventually joined up, too. My own father had served in the Durham Light Infantry during the Second World War, and I'd lost grandfathers on both sides of the family during the First. Rebus, too, it is recorded in Dead Souls, lost both grandfathers in the course of that conflict. This just about squares with something I learned about Rebus in 1996 or '97, namely that he comes from Polish stock.

I spent the ten years from 1986 away from Edinburgh, living in London for four years and rural France for six. On returning to Edinburgh, I found myself in a bookshop on Dalkeith Road called The Bookworm. Its owner, Peter Ritchie, who has since become a good friend, told me he drank in a pub called Swany's and invited me to join him there some Friday night. This I did, and was introduced to Peter's drinking circle, whose members included a gentleman by the name of Joe Rebus. Having startled me further by telling me he lived on a street called Rankin Drive, Joe proceeded to explain that the family name was Polish. I decided that night that Rebus would have Polish roots, too. After all, growing up in Fife, a good number of my classmates had East European-sounding surnames. There had been economic migrations to Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to take advantage of employment opportunities in heavy engineering and traditional industries such as coal. It seems feasible that Rebus's father's father could have come to Scotland, found a wife, and sired Rebus's father before heading off to fight for his new homeland in the trenches.

All of this led me to the eventual writing of Fleshmarket Close, in which Rebus has to deal with asylum-seekers (genuine and otherwise) and the new market in illegal economic migrants. Scotland used to pride itself on having a welcome ready for visitors and the dispossessed. We saw ourselves as reaching out to Europe and Scandinavia (necessary for trade at one time, whenever we were in conflict with England). We sent our sons and daughters overseas to launch themselves on new continents, stretching from Nova Scotia to the southern tip of New Zealand. At the same time, we were a mongrel nation, pillaged and settled in turn by a variety of cultures, from Norse and Celtic to Anglo-Saxon. It sometimes seemed to us (lazily, in retrospect) that we were far too busy with religious bigotry to have any time for racism. Certainly, those kids with the East European names were made welcome - they were Scots, after all. I'm not sure a Catholic kid could have walked with so blithe a heart into my school playground:

"'What in Christ's name is happening here?' he found himself asking. The world passed by, determined not to notice: cars grinding homewards; pedestrians making eye contact only with the pavement ahead of them, because what you didn't see couldn't hurt you. A fine, brave world awaiting the new parliament. An ageing country, dispatching its talents to the four corners of the globe... unwelcoming to visitor and migrant alike." (Fleshmarket Close, p170.)

If my original project had been a greater understanding of the city of Edinburgh, those parameters soon changed, once I'd discovered that Rebus was a tough enough creation to lead the reader into an investigation of Scotland itself: a small, proud and ancient country with a confused and fragile sense of its own identity. This is the landscape I inherited, with Detective Inspector John Rebus as my guide. As a nation, Scotland has been called "the arse of Europe" (by a Papal Legate in 1529) and a place of immense civilisation (by Voltaire, no less). Betjeman and Walpole have sung the praises of Edinburgh, while others (including some of its most famed citizens) have decried the suffocating petty-mindedness of the place. A contradictory city makes a good capital for a country of contradictions. Growing up in Scotland, I was only ever aware of my Scottishness when our national team were playing football, or some sporting legend was winning gold, or when we ventured south of the border to places where my accent proved a challenge. At university, I studied English rather than Scottish literature (the latter being available only as a one-year supplementary course at that time), and wasn't aware of Scottish writing of any contemporary vibrancy until Alasdair Gray's Lanark came along - at just the right time for me. Lanark was a teeming, confident novel about Scotland past, present and future, and came as a welcome respite from books that seemed always to be looking over their shoulder to historical mistakes and grievances. Suddenly readers were looking to the urban experience of Glasgow for insights into the world, and writers such as James Kelman and William Mcllvanney were happy to oblige.

While in Edinburgh, of course, we had The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But that landscape would soon change.

• Rebus's Scotland: A Personal Journey is published by Orion next week. Scotland on Sunday readers may order copies for the special price of 17 (rrp 20), including FREE post/packing (UK only; overseas add 1.50), by calling 01903 828503 and quoting ref no JAREB

Rankin: a biography

• Ian Rankin was born on April 28, 1960, in the Fife village of Cardenden, the son of a grocer and a cafeteria worker. He was educated locally and at Edinburgh University.

• As a child, Rankin made his own comic books, influenced by the Fantastic Four and the characters in The Beano.

• At Beath Senior High School in Cowdenbeath, Rankin edited a magazine that was closed down after just one issue - because the headmaster objected to its title, Mainline. He also wrote a story about "junkies in a squat - even though I had no experience whatsoever of drugs or squats".

• At work on a PhD at university, Rankin gave up writing poetry and concentrated on short stories. He won several literary prizes for three stories that he wrote when he was supposed to be studying. The last of these was the basis of the first Inspector Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses.

• Before, during and after university, Rankin had a variety of jobs: in a chicken factory, as an alcohol researcher, a swineherd, a grape-picker and a tax collector. He also realised one ambition, by joining a short-lived punk band called The Dancing Pigs ("Fife's second greatest punk ensemble").

• In 1986, when his PhD grant ran out, Rankin married Miranda Harvey and moved with her to London. Harvey worked there as a civil servant while Rankin took a job as an assistant at the National Folktale Centre. He then moved into journalism, as an editorial assistant at the monthly national magazine Hi-Fi Review, eventually becoming its editor.

• In 1990, after four years in London, the couple felt close to burn-out. They decided to move to rural France where they could live cheaply and allow Rankin to concentrate on his fiction. Both their sons, Jack and Kit, were born there.

• Rankin won the 1991-92 Chandler-Fulbright Award, one of the world's most prestigious detective fiction prizes (funded by the estate of Raymond Chandler), and went to the US for six months, where he drove 14,000 miles from Seattle to Nantucket in a 1969 Volkswagen camper van.

• Rankin's commercial breakthrough came in 1997 with Black and Blue, which won that year's Gold Dagger. The novel incorporated the story of the notorious Bible John, who murdered three women in 1960s Glasgow but was never caught.

• Today the Rebus novels usually sell half a million copies in paperback within three months of publication.

Rankin on Rebus

"I was studying English Literature when I wrote the first Rebus book, Knots and Crosses, and at the time I was studying deconstruction and semiotics. A rebus is a picture puzzle, and it seemed to click. After all, we already had Inspector Morse (a type of code), and in the first book Rebus was being sent picture puzzles to solve... so I made him Rebus, thinking it was only for one book."

"I don't know whether I'll kill him off or whether he will retire and buy a bar."

"I'd love to be the singer in a rock band; probably Rebus would, too. The music in the books reflects Rebus's taste and my own, and also acts as a kind of shorthand, telling us about characters and situations."

"Rebus doesn't fit in, and I never felt as I was growing up that I fitted in anywhere: living in a rough working-class village, sitting in your bedroom writing poetry. When I went out there was no way I'd tell anyone - the gang on the street corner would have beaten me to a pulp. I had to pretend to be someone else. All that stuff goes into Rebus's character."

"I hope I'm not going to be inside his head the rest of my life. I wrote the first of the novels when I was 24. It would be a terrible thing if I was in my 70s and still writing about Rebus - 50 years of writing about this curmudgeonly, old, chain-smoking bugger. I'm quite prepared to give him up when the time is ready; maybe once the mortgage is paid."

"Through the course of his life, he has been knocked about, shot, pushed out of helicopters, tortured, walked out on by a host of girlfriends, fallen out with his family, seen friends murdered in cold blood, and been haunted by ghosts. He's tackled terrorists and serial killers, racists and bigots, pimps and dealers and gangsters. All I've done is sit at a desk in a well-heated room, drinking coffee and eating chocolate, while I put Rebus through the mill for the umpteenth time."

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