“That’s Rebus’s seat there.” Ian Rankin nods at the table next to us, two paces away on the other side of the window in the back room of Edinburgh’s Oxford Bar. We both stare at the empty pew.
Absent yet ever present, former Detective Inspector John Rebus has been drinking in “The Ox” for 30 years, the same length of time Rankin has been writing about him.
Tucked away on a cobbled lane in Edinburgh’s New Town with its net curtains over opaque glass windows, calm green walls and dark wood furniture, this is a pub to settle into for a pint and a chat. Discreet yet convivial. It’s old school with no music or snacks on slates to upset the ambience. Regulars sit on stools at the bar while up a few steps in the back room there are tables and chairs for those cops, journalists, office workers, workies and tourists seeking a seat and the conversation ranges from the match to murder under the low murmur of the telly high on its shelf.
Today it’s warm on a grey Edinburgh day. Snug in the snug.
When I arrive 56-year-old Rankin is sitting alone, opening mail sent to him care of the bar.
Today it’s crime books. “I get a lot of those,” he says, pleased.
His dress is casual, approaching smart: a dark blue Paul Smith shirt, anonymous brown trousers, black trainers and a dark jacket. Familiar as he is, he wouldn’t stand out in a line-up.
“I started drinking here when I was a student because a mate of mine was a barman, just at the time I was starting to write the first Rebus book. A lot of cops drank in here off duty, a lot of politicians, a real mix,” he says. “I’ve always liked it.”
We’re here to talk about his new book, Rather Be The Devil, the 22nd Rebus crime novel, published on 5 November.
One of the country’s best-selling authors, with worldwide sales topping 30 million, he’s best known for Rebus, the series that spawned a TV version.
As well as the Rebus series, Rankin has also written crime fiction starring another of his fictional detectives, Malcolm Fox, other novels under the pen name Jack Harvey, short stories, and a play. And this year he’s been visiting professor at the University of East Anglia’s creative writing course.
“I’ve done one two-hour seminar and told them all I know about crime fiction already, about character, place and my heroes, so what I do for the rest of the year I don’t know.”
For his latest book, once again Rankin has taken a song as his inspiration. This time it’s John Martyn’s I’d Rather Be The Devil, one of the tracks on his Solid Air album.
The last book, Even Dogs in the Wild, was from an Associates song, while Saints of the Shadow Bible, came from a song by his friend, singer songwriter Jackie Leven.
“John Martyn’s Solid Air, when I did Desert Island Discs, was the one song I couldn’t live without.
It was weird because after I’d done the show I was leaving a restaurant and saw John Martyn sitting outside with some mates.
That was my chance to go up and say, ‘Solid Air is my favourite album of all time, I’m down here to do Desert Island Discs and blah, blah, blah’.
But I just bottled it. I couldn’t talk to him. And a couple of years later he was dead, and that was that.
“The title, Rather Be The Devil, is down to the fact that at some point in your life, you will be tempted, or take the wrong road.
How does it feel when you do something naughty, something wrong? Rebus is tempted to go over to the dark side.”
The Flying Pigs
Rankin has always loved music.
In his teenage days he sang in new wave band The Flying Pigs.
Now he listens to instrumental music as he writes – Brian Eno, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, Mogwai, Tangerine Dream.
He’s also met a few of his musical heroes. He whips out his mobile and shows me a photo of him with Jimmy Page last week. “Definitely star struck,” he says.
Rankin’s career as vocalist in The Flying Pigs hit the skids when he couldn’t get back to Fife to practice, but he still has his tambourine.
“Well, I had to have something to hold.
It was 1977/78 and we were listening to Joy Division, Japan, probably early Human League, coming out of punk and into new wave. We had some punk songs and some psychedelic.
I’ve got a five track cassette of us that I listened to recently and thought, the singer’s flat but he doesn’t know it.
He had no dress sense either, a Paisley top my aunty knitted me, a short-sleeved red shirt, white Sta-Prest trousers and Ramones hair.”
He might have ditched the outfits, but he kept the can-do mentality of punk. In fact it was the spur to his literary ambitions.
“It was hugely important to me to be that age at that time, because the punk ethos meant you didn’t have to go to the right school, or be able to afford the right instruments, or have musical training.
Punk gave you a kind of chutzpah, so even trying to be a writer, I just thought, well, I’m going to send poems to Radio Times, short stories to the Observer, just have a go.
You got nothing back, but you did it anyway. And at uni people just made music, magazines, films, put on gigs, exhibitions, all sorts. We just went, ‘yeah, what the hell’.”
Born in Cardenden in Fife in April 1960, Rankin is the son of James, who managed a grocer’s then worked at Rosyth dockyard and Isobel, a school dinner lady and chicken factory canteen worker.
“Being working class, my parents thought Ian’s going to uni, the first in the family, and I’d do dentistry or accountancy.
I was going to do accountancy, then I got a C in Economics and thought, why am I doing this? The only thing I was interested in was books and literature.”
After graduation, and a spell in the tax office, which he hated, Rankin won a grant from Edinburgh University to do a PhD on Muriel Spark.
“I thought, I’m funded for three years, they cannae kick me out. Would Muriel want me to write a PhD that would sit in Edinburgh University library gathering dust or would she like me to try and write novels? So I sat in the National Library of Scotland and wrote three novels in three years.
“The first book was never published. It was a black comedy set in a Highland hotel, called Summer Rites, with a one-legged schizophrenic librarian and a plot revolving around the kidnapping of an American author based on Norman Mailer, by the Provisional Wing of the SNP.
The second book, The Flood, was published, and the third book was the first Rebus. So that was it.”
That first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses appeared in 1987, but Rankin didn’t start making real money for around another 14 years, earning his first million in his early forties.
“I was lost for years, you know. I hadn’t a clue.
“I was getting published but not making any money and many times I thought I was going to have to give up because the books weren’t selling enough and I thought the publisher was about to drop me.”
Living with success
These days money or being dropped aren’t problems, but when each novel is a bestseller, the pressure is on to keep up sales and standards.
“No I don’t have to worry about money, but you worry about your next book.
“You think: I’m going to get found out this time. I’ve just been blagging it and they’re going to go, ‘hang on, this guy’s no good. This is actually rubbish.’
“And you’re trying to make each book better than the one before. So the more you write, the tougher it gets.”
But surely if you’ve been writing a character for 30 years over 22 books, honing your craft, it should get easier.
“You’d think,” he says. “But it doesn’t get easier because you’re always trying to write something better.
“Why does any novelist keep writing long after they’ve made money? Because they’ve failed to write the perfect novel.
“We’re all trying to say what we want to say about the world in the best possible way.
“Iris Murdoch said every novel is the wreckage of a perfect idea.
“When you get the idea, you think, this is going to be amazing, then when you start writing, words let you down, your thoughts let you down and you fail. So you pick yourself up and try again.”
Rebus wouldn’t be Rebus if it wasn’t set in Edinburgh and the city permeates the books, from plot to character to language.
Rankin lives in upmarket Merchiston on the south side of the city with Miranda, who he met at university and married in 1986.
“Their two sons, Jack and Kit, who has Angelman Syndrome, are both now in their twenties. Does he think he’d be a different writer in a different city?
“I don’t think Edinburgh makes me write in a certain way, but the books started off as me trying to explore and make sense of the city and that’s ongoing.
“All crime fiction is about good and evil and why we humans keep doing terrible things. And there’s a lot of that in Scottish literature and a lot of it in Edinburgh’s past.
“This idea that it’s a Jekyll and Hyde city, the rational and irrational, the New Town and Old Town, is all wrapped up with the books I write.
“If I set the books in Cardenden or Glagow, they would be very different books.”
As we talk, Rebus fans approach to say hello and Rankin is charm itself, chatting and posing for selfies, pointing out Rebus’s usual table. Again, we all turn and stare at the empty pew.
Out of retirement
Rebus has been retired for a couple of years, but that doesn’t stop him breenging his way into a cold case involving a murder in the Caledonian Hotel.
Meanwhile crime boss Big Ger Cafferty is also back to take on young pretender Darryl Christie in their struggle for control of the city’s heart of darkness.
Why did Rankin retire Rebus in the first place, giving himself the problem of how to bring him back?
“Well, it was probably a silly thing, but a copper I knew asked how old Rebus was and I said about 58/59.
“He said he’s got to retire at 60. I had no idea.
“When I started I’d decided he would live in real time because I wanted to talk about the way Edinburgh and Scotland were changing and that’s difficult if your main character stays 40 all the way through.
“So I made him retire and thought OK, that’s it, that’s done. Done.
“I still wanted to write about a detective in Edinburgh so I invented Malcolm Fox and was happy writing about him.
“Then I got an idea that started with an unsolved case.
“The real cold case unit in Edinburgh was staffed almost entirely by retired detectives and I thought I could invent a new detective, but I’ve already got one who’s retired, so…
“And people kept coming up to me saying, what’s Rebus up to? I said he’s probably working cold cases or sitting in the Oxford Bar.
“He’s not going to be driving a taxi or running a B&B in Marbella.
“The problem with Rebus is he can’t mentally retire, because detective work is all he lives for, so he’s always going to get involved.
“But he does have a limited shelf life because he can’t chase suspects or get into fights.
“I’ve given him COPD [the lung condition, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] that he’ll have for the rest of his days.
“My wife had been saying for years he’d been too lucky healthwise, bearing in mind his lifestyle, so I gave him that.”
I point out that he still manages to kick in the door of a flat over a betting shop in Leith.
“But you see how he’s limping afterwards, really regretting it. And it takes him about four goes to kick in a dodgy Yale.”
And he’s got a cool girlfriend too, I say, surely there’s life in Rebus yet.
“Yeah, she’s lovely this one. I’ve tried giving him girlfriends before and it’s never worked out.
So far, touch wood. My wife likes her. She didn’t like previous girlfriends so they didn’t last long.”
Rankin or Rebus?
It’s not hard to spot the similarities between Rankin and his fictional protagonist.
They’re both from Cardenden, both live in the south side, both love vinyl, both drink in the Oxford Bar.
“We come from the same place and like a lot of boys I knew who left school at 16, he went into the armed forces then joined the police, which I might have done had I not got to uni.”
Rankin, however, never smoked, apart from carrying around a crushed packet of Gauloises when he was a student.
“I was 18 when my mum took ill and eventually it was diagnosed as lung cancer. She died when I was 19 and that kind of puts you off smoking.
“If you were a psychoanalyst you could maybe make much of the links.
“Rebus lives in a street I lived in in Marchmont when I started writing the books, and Big Ger Cafferty lives in the house I live in now, in Merchiston.
“Oh wait, he’s just moved actually to Quartermile. All this stuff you’ve got to keep remembering when you’re doing a series.”
Another thing that slipped Rankin’s mind was the fact Rebus has a dog now. Poor wee Brillo was left crossing his legs in the flat until the author remembered he’d invented him.
“Yeah, Brillo. I was 50 pages in and went f***, he’s got a dog. I’d forgotten. I don’t know how Rebus gets on with a dog.”
Like Rebus, Rankin sees himself as a detective.
“I think all novelists are in a way.
“We’re wandering through life, trying to make sense of it.
“Give Rebus a puzzle and he’ll work away at it until he finds a shape.
“Crime fiction has a wonderful shape where you have the crime, the investigation and the resolution.
“There’s a lot you can do within the structure, but there’s an ending. It isn’t loose and chaotic.
“You make sense of that world for 300 pages and psychologically that’s very pleasing and therapeutic.
“I think I’ve used the Rebus novels a lot of the time as a kind of therapy, a way of making sense of the world and finding answers to big questions, or trying to find answers to big questions.”
Writing in solitude
Rankin usually averages a book a year and his process is to take himself off to his bolthole in Cromarty on the Black Isle and write in solitude.
The first draft takes about a month, where he pushes through with his initial idea, not stumbling over details.
The second sees him checking and polishing, the third goes to his wife for a read and the fourth to the publisher.
“Up in Cromarty there’s no mobile signal, no TV.
“It’s get up in the morning, coffee, crossword, write all day, maybe a walk at lunchtime to clear the head, back to work then at seven o’clock I go to the pub, have whatever’s on the menu, a couple of pints, then an early night, repeat.”
Does Rankin hang out with police and criminals? “I don’t hang out with police but I’ve got people I can ask about specifics,” he says.
And does he know the names of the city’s Mr Bigs?
“If I did they wouldn’t be very good. Although I got a taxi back from the airport recently and the driver dropped a name I hadn’t heard before, so I thought I should do some digging.”
‘Crime writers would be rubbish at crime’
Rankin has visited prisons to give talks and been locked in cells for research but he’s never been arrested, despite a recent brush with the law.
“A couple of cops arrived at the door and said they’d had a report of someone suspicious that a neighbour thought sounded like me. Had I walked up the road 45 minutes ago? The thing was I’d been helping my son move back in so over my shoulder they could see boxes and computers, like I’d just ripped off somebody’s house.
It was hilarious. Suspicious? I’ve lived in that street for nearly 30 years!”
I suggest that being a crime writer might be the perfect cover but Rankin laughs.
“Crime writers would be rubbish at crime. We’re rubbish at solving them too.
“When I’m reading crime novels I almost never work out what’s going on. I’m as surprised as anybody.”
This surprise at how things turn out extends to his own books too, with the writer as intrigued as the reader as to whodunnit.
“With this one I was a long way through before I worked out who was actually responsible.
“There was a point where I thought, wait a minute, you’re the one who’s done this! Many of us just make it up as we go along. I like it like that. It’s an adventure.”
Rankin plans to take next year off, apart from celebrating 30 years of Rebus at various book festivals. Holidays with his wife are on the cards, and maybe listening to some Flying Pigs.
“I don’t know if I’m going to write about Rebus again,” he says. “That could be it for him. Game over.”