The gruff –boozy Scottish detective, John Rebus, will return in his 21st novel this November, but be prepared to see some changes in Ian Rankin’s much loved character.
Rather Be the Devil will see the retired cantankerous investigator drawn into a cold case from the 1970s involving a female socialite who died in an Edinburgh hotel.
Ian Rankin read the first chapter, still in its first draft form, to a very attentive audience at the recent Crimefest in Bristol, where he was the featured guest author. The opening chapter made it clear that the drinking and smoking over the years had finally caught up with the aging Rebus.
Could we be witnessing the final curtains of the popular detective? Rankin lets on that Rebus has a serious illness after decades of over indulgence, something the writer’s wife nagged him to do because in real life you couldn’t drink and smoke to that degree without having to pay for it at some point.
Rankin clearly is thinking what to do next with Rebus. Having retired him off, he inveigled him into another investigation in Standing in Another Man’s Grave in 2013, only after Police Scotland, raised the mandatory age of retirement, providing him with the perfect excuse to bring him back into the fold.
Then followed Even Dogs in the Wild, out in paperback next month, where he helps former colleague Siobhan Clarke solve a murky murder.
Rankin knew his detective would have to be retired when he hit 60 in the 2007 novel, Exit Music, the news of which prompted one Scottish MP to stand up in the Scottish Parliament to ask whether the retirement age for police could be raised so that Rebus could be kept on. Years later Police Scotland obliged, and rebus was back.
One of the problems about writing a crime series is time. Many writers allow their fictional detectives to remain forever young over the passing decades. But Rankin decided Rebus would live in the real world and get old, researching the newspaper archives to always provide an authentic backdrop. Although he has factored in Rebus’ age, he has also fiddled about with it as well. He didn’t exactly stop the clock, but he did manage to slow down the passage of time. In the current series, Rebus is in his mid-60s, but in real time he would be an old man of 70.
As Rankin explained to the audience, the problem with finding Rebus a new role was that he was too old to become a PI, and PIs aren’t particularly believable characters in the UK. Moreover, real retired cops tend to work for solicitors, taking down statements from witnesses in court cases. Besides, he couldn’t envisage Rebus opening a B&B or going travelling either, because all he wants to do is to be a detective.
Would Rankin ever consider retiring?
“I could imagine a time when I’m not publishing, but would still be writing,” he told the audience, adding that he’s tried film script writing and used to produce comic books. In fact, one of his old novellas was cannibalised into a Rebus book.
Oddly enough when he started writing he didn’t think he would become a crime writer at all because at that time there was no tradition of crime writing about Edinburgh where he lived. There had been only one crime writer from the city before, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but he set Sherlock Holmes in London. While Glasgow was seeing gritty writing, Rankin figured why not in Edinburgh too where there were real living problems too despite it being a popular tourist destination.
There were times that he doubted he would ever make it as a crime writer. After his first Rebus novel in 1987, Knots and Crosses, he feared he might be dropped as a mid-list writer, where books just breakeven. He’d written four or five Rebus books by then with no breakthrough in sales, and he thought he would not cut it as a crime writer.
Then he published the highly acclaimed Black and Blue in 1997, which proved to be the turning point after strong reviews. He said he managed to channel much of his anger into that novel after learning that his younger son, Kit, had been diagnosed with Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic condition characterised by severe learning difficulties. As a consequence Black and Blue became a bigger and more questioning book than his previous stories and was the first to sell in any quantities.
Fife-born Rankin became the first Scottish writer to pass the £50m sales mark and his novels are claimed to account for between 10% and 20% of all crime fiction sold in the UK. The rebus series has been translated into around 36 languages and has won numerous crime-writing awards.
He’s written new instalments almost every year, with two issued in 1992, alongside short stories, standalone novels that do not feature Rebus. But in 2013 Rankin surprised everyone when he announced he would be taking a year off to recharge his batteries and rediscover his passion for writing. His time away had also been prompted by the death of two close friends, including the novelist Iain Banks.
Age is not only catching up with Rebus but with Rankin too, he admits. But if Rebus is coming to his end, Rankin seemed uncertain by the suggestion of ever doing a prequel to the series. When the time comes to say farewell to his fictitious friend, he no doubt will miss him because he’s enjoyed hiding behind Rebus all these years as a writer. He says Rebus has helped him to become introspective, allowing him to wrap it up in his stories.
However, he doubts whether his creation would have much time for him if they were ever to meet in a pub. They might chat about music over a pint, but Rebus wouldn’t understand a wishy-washy graduate like Rankin, he claims.
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