Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus: a beginner’s guide

Ian Rankin in Inspector Rebus' favourite drinking den, The Oxford Bar. Picture: Jane Barlow
Ian Rankin in Inspector Rebus' favourite drinking den, The Oxford Bar. Picture: Jane Barlow
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EVEN Dogs In The Wild, Ian Rankin’s last Inspector Rebus, has been released. If you’re still not up to speed with Edinburgh’s greatest fictional detective, then catch up with this beginner’s guide

The basics

Throughout the Rebus series the reader slowly learns more about the initially mysterious police detective’s past. According to Rankin, who first created the character in 1985, John Rebus was born in 1947 and grew up in Cardenden, Fife, not far from where Rankin himself went to high school. Rebus has one brother, Michael, and their father was a stage hypnotist.

After leaving school at the age of 15, Rebus joined the army and served in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. The teenager then applied and was selected to undergo SAS training, where he excelled. Rebus suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of further, more intensive training and resigned from the SAS. With help from the army, the character secured a position with the Lothian and Borders Police in order to recover.

During the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, Rebus is a detective sergeant, but is soon promoted to detective inspector. He turns down at least one further promotion in the following novels, remaining at the same level until retirement.

The character married before the beginning of the Rebus books, but was divorced some time in the 1980s. His ex-wife Rhona and daughter Samantha feature regularly in the novels.

Since Rhona, Rebus’s romantic interests have been fleeting. The only woman in his life throughout much of the series is detective sergeant Siobhan Clarke, his colleague and protégé. Their platonic bond is strong and Siobhan soon becomes a principal character, first appearing in the fifth Rebus novel The Black Book.


While Ian Rankin prefers not to embellish too much on the physical appearance of his characters, there are a few hints to suggest that Rebus has brown hair and green eyes. The detective is unkempt, a smoker and a heavy drinker who prefers to be alone.

He is a lover of both literature and music, and has a huge record collection. A music fan himself, Rankin often references artists and songs in his book titles, chapter names and plotlines. The author has also stated in the past that, although not made obvious in the novels, Rebus is a Raith Rovers supporter when it comes to football.

Undoubtedly Rebus’s most famous character trait is his gruff demeanour, which hides a kind heart that is often masked by his wry sense of humour.

“Sithing was staring at Rebus. ‘Right at the core of your cynical heart, can’t you feel something?’

“‘It’s just indigestion, thanks for asking.’ Rebus rubbed his chest.”

Rebus’s Edinburgh

Set primarily in and around Edinburgh, Rankin’s novels take the detective all across the city in search of the truth. Some notable local landmarks written into the series include the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, Rosslyn Chapel and Calton Hill. The 15th Rebus novel even borrows its name from the Edinburgh street Fleshmarket Close.

In recent years Rankin lists Rebus’ home at 17 Arden Street in Edinburgh, a real address in the Marchmont area. The character also frequents the Oxford Bar on Young Street in the city centre.


Every hero has an enemy. Just as Holmes had Moriarty, Rebus has Big Ger Cafferty, a notorious Edinburgh crime boss and constant headache for Rankin’s detective. Morris Gerald Cafferty cameos briefly in third Rebus novel Tooth and Nail, but becomes a main character two novels later in The Black Book.

Rebus and Cafferty have a complicated relationship. Rebus often presses his nemesis for information even as he simultaneously pursues him for a long list of crimes.

Rebus and Siobhan spend much of their time chasing Cafferty, whether directly or indirectly, throughout the rest of the series.


Detective Inspector Rebus officially retired 2007 after the publication of Rankin’s 17th Rebus story, Exit Music. The author did not retire the character, however, and John Rebus popped up again in 2012 novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave. When Rebus is brought back on board to assist new Rankin character Detective Inspector Malcolm Fox, the former detective is spending his days working on cold cases as a civilian at police headquarters. In Rankin’s latest book, Even Dogs in the Wild, Rebus is again tempted out of retirement to assist, Siobhan and Fox with Edinburgh’s latest murder mystery.

Rebus on TV

Two very different actors have taken on the role of John Rebus for TV adaptations. John Hannah was the first, playing the detective in four episodes between 2000 and 2001. Five years later, Ken Stott picked up where Hannah had left off, filming three series (10 episodes) as Rebus. Rankin’s Rebus stories have also been adapted many times for BBC Radio 4.