Ahead of his appearance at the Belfast Book Festival, Sir Ian Rankin chats to Aine Toner about finishing what another Scottish crime legend had started
Novelist Sir Ian Rankin is gearing up for a year off — or he’ll be looking at divorce, he jokes.
The newly-knighted crime writer, honoured for his charity work and literature, said it’s time for he and wife Siobhan to enjoy themselves and go travelling.
“She said next year I better not take on any new projects or be prepared for divorce papers. My wife’s a good Belfast girl, so I always do what I’m told,” laughs the creator of DI John Rebus.
Even through lockdown, it has been a busy time for Sir Ian, who was recognised in the Platinum Jubilee birthday honours, and who describes the award for what it says about crime fiction.
“Crime fiction is not a lesser form of literature, and it’s been recognised as such by the Queen.
“[The honour] was partly for the charity work that I’ve done and hopefully having ‘Sir’ in front of your name means that you could do a bit more for charity as previously was the case.
“Speaking as a working-class kid from a coal-mining village, my parents would have been so chuffed, they would have been over the moon, my sister was over the moon,” he says.
“Actually, my sister was over the moon, but she said, ‘Don’t get big-headed, you’ll always be my wee brother’.”
Sir Ian is heading to Belfast on June 14 for a conversation with Derry noir writer Brian McGilloway as part of the Belfast Book Festival next week. He’ll be discussing his most recent endeavour with William McIlvanney’s The Dark Remains.
William’s detective Laidlaw trilogy changed the face of crime fiction in the 1970s and 1980s, inspiring authors such as Val McDermid and Sir Ian.
When William died in 2015, he left a series of notes for a Laidlaw prequel, and it was his widow Siobhan who asked Sir Ian to finish what her husband had started.
“It was a heavy responsibility because I was such a fan of William McIlvanney and had been from the days before I was ever published myself,” he says.
“Then when I was published, he became a friend and a mentor. I couldn’t not do it, but I said, if I don’t feel that I’m capturing his voice, then I’m going to have to walk away from the project.
“It all depended on me managing to capture his voice to the extent that when you read the book, you’re not reading me, you feel like you really are reading a work written by William McIlvanney.
“The loveliest thing was when she read it, his widow Siobhan, she wrote me a handwritten letter and said I could feel he was in the room with me as I read it, you gave him back to me.”
Sir Ian was privy to some 200 pages of notes and research included reading a year’s worth of Glasgow newspapers for 1972.
“It was really releasing, it was great because I didn’t have to factor in mobile phones, CCTV or DNA analysis of the crime scene or any of that, police stations didn’t have computers,” he says of writing a historic police drama.
“It was back to old-fashioned policing and I really enjoyed that. It was like a breath of fresh air to me, I did not think about all these modern conveniences that can get in the way.”
Laidlaw is described in the prequel as a one-off detective in a world of mass production.
“One of the challenges was to make sure that it was Laidlaw that was I writing about and not a version of Rebus,” says Sir Ian of his best-known literary creation.
“Luckily, the two characters are actually quite different, although they have a similar background.
“Laidlaw is much more of a philosopher; he actually has books of philosophy sitting on his desk. He’s much more poetical in his thinking and his speech than Rebus is.
“Rebus is a bit harder nosed I would say, less of a romantic, and so that was good for me, because it meant that I was never worried that I was going to descend into writing about a type of Rebus character, it was always going to be Willie’s character.”
The reissuing of William’s detective stories, which had been out of print, brought new and revived audiences and what Sir Ian describes as a “flourishing, lovely third act” for the author.
He says Rebus meeting Laidlaw would be a union of two wary officers.
“I think they’d go to a police pub and drink whiskey and they would be like two heavyweight fighters who are circling each other without actually wanting to throw a punch. They don’t want to hurt each other in a way.
“People ask me how would you get on if Rebus walked in the pub and I don’t think he would like me at all,” says Sir Ian.
“I think he would like Laidlaw more than he would like me.”
Twenty-six Rebus novels later, and the character still has the ability to surprise his creator.
“One of the nice things about the series is it takes place more or less in real time,” says Sir Ian.
“When I sit down to write a new book, he has changed, his personal life has changed, he’s got older, he’s got creakier.
“The series charts a guy who, when we first met him, was fairly young and vigorous and macho.
“And now when we meet him, he’s retired, his health is problematic and he’s wondering if he can still play a role in the world.
“That keeps me on my toes; that means each new book is almost like writing about a new character because things have moved on. I think readers seem to like that as well.”
The Dark Remains includes a transcript of a 2013 conversation between Ian and William, with Sir Ian saying if you ever completed a ‘perfect’ book that says “exactly what you want to say about the world in the perfect way”, you might never need to write another.
“Many of us are trying to write a story or book that will sum up the world to us in the best possible way,” he says.
“But words are slippery. When you get the idea for the book, it’s perfect and crystalline. As soon as you start to write it, it starts to slip away from you.
“It’s not quite perfect. It’s never quite perfect, so you need to sit down again and start another book and try again. But some writers have done it.
“JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, he didn’t feel the need to write much more after that. Harper Lee didn’t do much after that [To Kill A Mockingbird] because she kind of felt that’s what she wanted to say. That was the story she wanted to tell, and it was done as well as it could be, and she was happy.”
For Sir Ian, who is one of many Scottish crime writers beloved of tartan noir fans, a story he reads or hears is often the genesis of a novel.
“Why did that happen? Why does this crime happen? What if it happened in Scotland as opposed to happening somewhere else?
“What does it say about us as a society or as a culture that these kinds of things happen?
“Then I find a plot that allows me to explore that question, and then I think which character do I need?
“Usually the answer is Rebus, not always, but usually the answer is Rebus.
“He investigates the world on my behalf to try to find answers to these questions that were kind of bugging me.”
Sir Ian Rankin is in conversation with Brian McGilloway as part of the Belfast Book Festival on June 14. For more information, see belfastbookfestival.com. The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin, Canongate Books, £8.99, is available now