Ian Rankin: Exits and entrances
With Rebus gone, what next for Ian Rankin? Barry Forshaw meets a literary icon thinking not just of endings – of the Union, for instance – but new starts as well
It's the end for DI John Rebus. But Ian Rankin had it clear in his mind that he was not going to make the same mistake of fellow-Scot Arthur Conan Doyle when he attempted to write finis to the career of Sherlock Holmes by plunging him and his arch-enemy Moriarty to their deaths over the Reichenbach Falls.
In Exit Music (Orion, £18.99), Rankin has ended the much-acclaimed series of crime novels featuring his bolshie Edinburgh copper – and the book finishes with a confrontation between Rebus and his long-term adversary, the gangster Big "Ger" Cafferty. But (without giving too much away) this confrontation is far less conclusive than Conan Doyle, and less likely to have readers baying for blood over Rankin's termination of his protagonist.
Is the villainous Cafferty dead? "Well, he's more alive now than he was in an earlier draft," Rankin says. "When I'm writing the last pages of a book, it's rather like squeezing the last bit of juice from a lemon. I get slower and slower – and I'm sure it's because I don't want to let go of a book. After all, when I hand a book to someone else – whether it's my publisher, my agent or my wife – it's no longer mine. As soon as anybody but me reads it, it ceases to be the perfect novel."
In the luxurious darkness of the bar of the Covent Garden Hotel – a stone's throw from his publisher's offices – Rankin is casually dressed in his customary black, sipping a Bloody Mary and trying to readjust to a much-condensed publicity schedule. The train that brought him from his home in Edinburgh was several hours late ("it was like travelling on a fucking stagecoach") and he has arrived in a London brought to a snail's pace by a Tube strike. But, as ever, Rankin remains the perfect interviewee. Surely, on a day when everything goes wrong, he must want to renounce the publicity hoopla that surrounds each book? Even if he is contracted to do it...
"Oh, I'm not contracted to do this! I'm always happy to do interviews; it's certainly better than being ignored. For the first four or five Rebus novels, hardly anyone took any notice. I would have died for attention. An interview in The Independent? Something you just dreamt about. And the memories are vivid enough not to take anything for granted."
However, Rankin could afford to take certain things for granted these days. His "collectable" status, for instance: early editions of his books fetch considerable amounts. "I've been accused of driving up the prices of early books by not sanctioning reprints," he says, slightly defensively, "but they're not my best work – inevitably. Ironically, the first Rebus, Knots and Crosses, was a very odd book compared with those that came after it. I was actually writing what I thought was a dark Gothic thriller, in which the detective might even be a suspect. The fact that this first Rebus book metamorphosed into a series came as a surprise to me. And, unfortunately, I provided a back story for Rebus which I couldn't then disinvent".
Ian Rankin's Scottishness is, of course, one of his defining characteristics. Was he consciously following in the tradition of crime writing established by Edinburgh-born Conan Doyle? "Not at all! When I was young, I didn't even know that Conan Doyle was Scottish! He appeared to be an English gentleman who wrote about an English consulting detective. We know that Scottish burr in his voice so well these days – you can go to the British Library and hear recordings of him – but back then, I didn't even know what he sounded like. So I can't honestly say he was an inspiration in terms of his Scottishness."
Rankin gazes out at the depressed-looking Londoners making their way down Monmouth Street in search of the few remaining buses. "London... even though I spent so much time in France, I lived in London. But Edinburgh is my locus classicus. Even Edinburgh City Council now regards me – finally – as an asset. I may have populated the city in my books with criminals, prostitutes and bent politicians, but I don't think that people these days consider that such things give the city a bad name."
But does an ending for Rebus augur a new beginning for Rankin? Having collected all the glittering prizes (including an OBE), is he tempted to rest on his laurels? Such a prospect is swiftly shot down. "Oh, no – that's not in my character at all. I enjoy what I've done, and enjoy what I'm doing. After all, in an alternative universe, I'm probably pursuing my first career, teaching creative writing at some university or other and being vaguely unhappy. I suppose in some ways I'm an academic manqué." In fact, Rankin has been invited to talk to the Anthony Powell Society: he is an unlikely fan of this patrician analyst of upper-crust English mores.
"Or I could be publishing books on Muriel Spark, Thomas Pynchon... or Anthony Powell. If you're writing a series about a character who ages in real time (as I do), he's a wonderful model to follow. But within the guise of crime writing, I'm able to take the occasional sideways glance at society or politics – never, of course, at the expense of telling the tale."
Ah, yes: Ian Rankin, the social commentator. From the mouth of his dyspeptic copper, we've had a perceptive (and scabrous) analysis of Scottish society and politics spread out across 20 books. And Rankin is famously rigorous when it comes to the foibles of his countrymen. So is the final chapter for Rebus coinciding with the beginnings of a move towards Scottish independence? Exit Music freights in (inter alia) a pretty unsparing vision of the Scottish National Party via a fictitious woman MP. What's Rankin's view these days of Alex Salmond and the SNP, now in government in Edinburgh?
"I always used to answer that I was yet to be persuaded. I have to admit that they have had a good hundred days. But this is the sort of question I try to deal with in my books. Exit Music is, to some extent, about what might happen if we decide to have an independent Scotland. I think it's right to be wary of such a proposition. I want politicians – English and Scottish – to know we are watching them, and not letting them get away with anything. But I suppose I am more sanguine about the SNP than I used to be. The latest polls show that 35 per cent of Scots are in favour of an independent Scotland, but they've been at that level for some considerable time. And if we did, just think of the daunting logistics and the bureaucracy involved – carving up North Sea oil rights, for instance. "
But surely Rankin and Gordon Brown are themselves the greatest refutation of the SNP ethos – two Scots not content to succeed in their own fiefdom, but also becoming the UK's bestselling crime writer, and its prime minister? Neither man has been content to court a narrow Scottish audience. " Well, I can't speak for Gordon Brown, but I certainly made a decision not to make my books too parochial, even though, of course, they're set in Edinburgh. I make sure that there aren't too many Celtic words, and it's clear that non-Scottish readers respond to the books."
So what lies ahead after the end of Rebus? "I'm doing a graphic novel – a stand-alone based on the DC comics character Hellblazer – and (wait for it) an opera libretto! In fact, it will be only 15 minutes long. It's a project for Scottish Opera, and the composer is Craig Armstrong. He's written some seriously impressive film music, such as Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, but he's never done an opera, and neither have I, so it's quite a challenge. It's actually part of a competition – Alexander McCall Smith is also writing for it – so the winners will have to write the rest of the opera. Craig and I have rather been hoping it won't be us, as we're both very busy people. For instance, I faithfully promised my publishers I'd beef up a novella I've written – the story of a heist, set in Edinburgh, called Doors Open."
It's time for the next event in Rankin's punishing schedule. "We talked earlier about beginnings and endings," he says, rising, "but despite putting Rebus into cold storage, my life is still full of new initiatives. It'll be quite some time before I retire to an idyllic life in France," where he has a house. But where will Rankin be living when he's 80? Edinburgh or the Ile de Noirmoutier? "At 80? Oh, I'll be dead. Genetically, I don't think I'm disposed to longevity. And between the booze and the chocolates and the fried food..."
Born in 1960, Ian Rankin was brought up in the former mining town of Cardenden, Fife; his father was a grocer. After publishing award-winning poetry and stories, he wrote three novels while a postgraduate student at Edinburgh University. Later he worked as a civil servant, researcher and journalist; his first published novel was The Flood. Knots and Crosses (1987) was the first book to feature Inspector John Rebus.
The Rebus novels have won four Crime Writers' Association awards, including the Diamond Dagger in 2005. The 20th and last is Exit Music (Orion). Several have also been adapted for television by ITV. Married with two sons, Ian Rankin OBE lives in Edinburgh, where he now holds the rank of Deputy Lieutenant.