WHAT an end of year it’s been for Ian Rankin, the best-selling crime novelist securing a No.1 slot in the last hardback chart of the year, taking top spot from a certain JK Rowling.
His chart success shows the value of a literary tour in the run-up to Christmas, a huge swathe of venues lined up and duly visited by the Scottish writer best known for his Rebus novels, not least through their TV dramatisations.
A couple of months ago, a superb Alan Yentob documentary followed Rankin penning the latest Rebus novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave – which Tony Parsons dubbed ‘the best thing on the writing life I have seen on TV since…ever’. That was followed by the tour, and on Boxing Day we’ll see Stephen Fry centre-stage in ITV one-off drama Doors Open, adapted from a Rankin novel.
Every documentary or feature I’ve seen on the Fife wordsmith suggests a truly grounded, likeable bloke. What’s more, I’m impressed by any author putting in regular leg work to meet and greet readers, as was the case on Rankin’s appearance at County Hall, Preston, an hour with the mic. in the council chamber followed by a signing session and more questions and answers from his adoring North-West public.
Like the BBC documentary, Rankin’s Preston appearance proved fascinating, the writer quickly at ease with his sell-out audience, chatting away about his books, craft, characters, inspirations and love of music, with a fair few amusing tangents thrown in.
Following a brief plug for ITV’s Doors Open (ITV, Boxing Day, 9pm), he told the back story to Standing in Another Man’s Grave and his decision to bring John Rebus out of retirement, explaining his publisher’s initial worry when he realised he was pensioning him off, after a call from one of Rankin’s police contacts explaining how he had to go at age 60.
He said: “He was absolutely horrified, suggesting instead I just stop the clock. No one will notice. Right – no one notices PD James’ Adam Dalgliesh is 102 now. Or that Ruth Rendell’s Wexford is about 85. I said no, I can’t stop the clock. These books are written in real time and I’ve made a virtue of the fact that they take place over a real span of time and Rebus ages and changes during the process.”
But that police contact later suggested a way back for Rebus, with the retirement age being reviewed. He added: “That was a great release for me. His head is the easiest place for me to be. I did lots of other things after Exit Music (the previous Rebus novel), including screenplays and the Malcolm Fox novels. But then my friend the cop told me they were thinking of changing the retirement ages for cops to 65 or 67. I asked if they might let Rebus back in, and if he applied would he be vetted by Internal Affairs. I thought there’s space here for a Rebus novel, and one with Fox in it.”
In the resultant Standing in Another Man’s Grave, Rankin takes Rebus ‘out of his comfort zone’, away from Edinburgh, up and down the A9 to investigate a murder with a possible ‘cold case’ link. He added: “I mentioned in Exit Music he would probably apply to join this small unit in Edinburgh with the unfortunate acronym SCRU – the Serious Crime Review Unit – and it was soon all clicking into place. That’s why Rebus came back – the real world made it possible for him to come back.
“Problem is I made him too old in book one (Noughts and Crosses). I should have made him 25 or 30, having decided to write a series in real time. Then I discovered with Malcolm Fox you don’t go into internal affairs forever, certainly not in Scotland, so I’d created yet another character with in-built decrepitude. This keeps happening to me, and now they’re in the course of changing the structure to a Scotland-wide constabulary, which means SCRU is screwed! There’s going to be one unit taking on all cold cases. So I keep screwing up again and again.
“It’s quite frustrating when you’re writing about the real world, because the real world has a way of kicking you in the pants now and again. It’s happened to me too many times. But it’s important to me, because cops have become fans of the books and useful contacts. I’m making a living telling lies, so should probably try and get the details of the job right as far as I can.
“In this book, I decided I’d take Rebus out of the city. I’d started using the A9 a lot, which starts in Stirling, taking in Perth, Inverness, all the way to the North coast. I was seeing there’s more to this small country than the central belt, Glasgow and Edinburgh. If I take Rebus up there he can start to get a sense of it. He’s been a bit lazy in his judgements of his country”.
Rankin added in a mumble how it might also have something to do with claiming petrol as a taxable deduction, but then dismissed this, adding, “I wish that was true, but it’s not!” But then he revealed, “Private Eye magazine suggests the only reason I mention music so much is so I can put all my albums down as taxable expenses. And that is true!”
He was going to call his latest novel, A9, but was dissuaded. Rankin explained: “It was punchy, dynamic, but my publisher said it sounds like a brand of socks or barbecue sauce, saying, ‘Think of something else.”
A typical Rankin tangent followed, going on to his collaboration with late Scottish singer-songwriter Jackie Leven, to whom the book is dedicated, someone he mentioned in an earlier novel, leading to a friendship and the pair touring to promote an album featuring Leven’s songs and Rankin’s words, an illuminating period for the author. He described Leven as a ‘great bear of a guy with a wonderful voice and terrific guitar technique, doing very muscular lyrics about hard men and an inability to communicate or show their feelings’. He added: “I thought Rebus would be a big fan.”
Rankin went on to tell a story about Leven putting a cooked haggis on his backstage ‘rider’, passing it off as Rankin’s request, leading to a ‘huge, burly, skin-headed’ chef at London’s Royal Festival Hall demanding to know who ordered the haggis, and asking how to cook his Fortnum & Masons purchase. Rankin added: “Like most crime writers, I’m a frustrated rock star, and would much rather be in a successful rock band. And through Jackie, I got as close to the music business as possible.”
Yet Leven died soon after, diagnoses late with cancer. He added: “When he got the news he just basically stuck a bottle of whisky in his jacket and went for a long walk. That was his way of dealing with it. And when I started writing this book I was listening to a lot of his albums.” One song in particular struck him, a mis-heard lyric ( ‘Standing in another man’s rain’) leading to the title of his book. And soon he was back to his publisher.
He added: “I told him: “OK, you don’t like A9, so this is the title. This is a killer, Standing in Another Man’s Grave. But he said it was too long and would take up the whole of the front cover. He told me to think of something else. I was a little annoyed, so did some research and went back. I said ‘OK, here’s the deal – that title has the exact same number of letters as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. So eventually he reneged, the reason being he was one of the many publishers who turned that down.”
Then came the writing process, with initial fears after bringing Rebus back after five years. He said: “Could I still see the world through his jaundiced, cynical eyes? The first page was quite worrying, until he reached for his cigarettes. Yes! He was back.” Rankin added that he’d never smoked, yet people often tell him Rebus is a ‘very realistic smoker’. What’s more, this time he takes his detective ‘the furthest he’s ever been from a pub in his life’. He added: “This is a guy who I’m guessing doesn’t have a passport. His idea of a holiday is to go to the Oxford Bar for an extra-long session.”
That took him on to the main bars he uses in his books, how they eventually became real ones after toying with a fictional city. He said: “While I was writing about Edinburgh, it had fictional streets, police stations, pubs. But then people were guessing which was which, so I thought why make it difficult, burning down his fictional police station, moving him to a real one, using a street where I lived as a student and a bar where I drank. And the Oxford Bar is something of a metaphor for the hidden Edinburgh – if you don’t know it’s there, you can never find it.”
Rankin’s next tangent involved Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond (whose official residence is very close to the Oxford Bar) and his predecessor, the late Donald Dewar (eavesdropping on him and his team on a sleeper train back from London, and a subsequent friendly chat). Then he was back on track again, telling how a Canadian fan refused to believe he was Rankin in the Oxford Bar one night, as ‘you looks nothing like Rebus’. He added: I had to show her my ID to try and persuade her. People are looking for a complex, dark, brooding guy. Then they find me.”
The author added that he had ‘no idea’ what Rebus looks like, going on to explain how – while having a shelf of the DVDs at home, he’s never seen the TV dramatisations. He explained how Leslie Grantham, then of Dirty Den in EastEnders fame, wanted to buy the rights to his debut, Noughts and Crosses, and move him to London, with him in the lead role. He added: “Thank God my agent disappeared in mysterious circumstances during the negotiations, and it fell through.” The next option involved the BBC, who – despite Rebus’ SAS and Para’s back ground, had Robbie Coltrane in mind. “I told them, well, the flashbacks to his army careers are going to be just superb!” While Coltrane moved on to success with Cracker, John Hannah was cast instead, followed in time by Ken Stott.
Rankin gave two main reasons why he’s chosen not to watch the TV versions. One being that a female author told him she coudn’t even write about one of her characters after an adaptation. The other involved Colin Dexter, who told him he had a ‘terrific experience’ but had changed the character of Morse to be more like John Thaw, the actor. Rankin added: “I didn’t want that to happen. I didn’t want Rebus to change and didn’t want actors’ voices and faces to interfere with the voices and faces in my head.”
Next came an illuminating insight regarding Doors Open, his art heist story originally written as a screenplay with an old university friend, the two of them thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had an Oceans 11 set in Scotland, with the cream of Scottish acting talent. We could have Sean Connery as the criminal mastermind, Ewan McGregor as his lieutenant, then James McEvoy …” Yet the pitch came to nothing, with no interest shown and the script going into the ‘bottom drawer’ until the New York Times wanted a story serial for a Sunday magazine and Rankin offered it as a 15-part tale. Interest followed from the UK, but they wanted it restructured as a novel, and it was duly published.
Then, “One day, Stephen Fry’s running for a plane, grabs a book from the book store, sits on the plane reading it and says ‘this will make a really good film.'” Talks with production teams followed and when they asked Rankin about a script, he suggested his friend. Full circle! And Rankin’s moral? “Never throw anything away. Nothing is lost to the writer. It doesn’t happen very often, but it’s lovely when it does.”
Time was getting on by now, but Rankin was happy to field lots of questions, and after batting away a suggestion about being a rock journalist, added: “Being a novelist is the best job in the world. I get to play God. You’ve got the complete power of destiny. If I leave here tonight and a boy racer tries to run me over, I’ll just go home and kill them. He made it to the junction, looked to turn left at the main road … Us writers still play with our imaginary friends, and it keeps us young. It’s quite child-like, open to play games and use puns. We’re Peter Pan figures, children who refuse to grow up. That’s why crime writers in particular are so nice. The romantic fiction writers are the ones to watch out for!”
Asked about his police contact network, Rankin talked about his first visit to a CID office in Edinburgh, where he unwittingly became a suspect in a murder investigation, its profile too close to comfort to Noughts and Crosses, only realising his naivety when his Dad called him ‘a silly bugger’ and enlightened him soon after. He added: “I learned a valuable lesson. Don’t do any research!” Yet he has kept in touch with various police contacts, who keep him in line from time to time on certain issues and procedures.
On the back of the success of recent Scandinavian police TV dramas, he was asked if he’d considered going ‘darker’, to which he admitted jealousy for the amount of time allowed for those series. He said: “Things like The Killing get 20 hours per series. I would kill for that! By the end of the Rebus TV series, it was 45 minutes per book. I did get darker around book three, but was told it was a bit graphic. I was influenced by Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter books. But I was persuaded I didn’t need to show all that stuff. Trust the reader, their image is far more graphic than I can write. And I think that’s been proved. I trust you to do the work, making it as graphic as you want.”
He hadn’t finished yet, moving on to Ken Stott, the Hearts fan set up by the producers of the TV series as Rebus is portrayed as a Hibs fan. Rankin said: “Rebus is from Fife. He’ll probably support Dunfermline or Raith Rovers Nil, as they’re known. I’ve seen that clip of Ken walking out at Easter Road (Hibernian FC) and looking really happy to be there. He said in an interview in Radio Times it was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do as an actor, wearing a green and white scarf and walking out at that stadium. Which is fine, except he has also played Hitler!”
The questions kept coming, Rankin holding forth about his famous cuttings file containing ideas for future books (featured in the Yentob documentary) and how he has ‘no idea’ what book he’ll start writing in January, or who’s involved. He said: “I don’t know if it’s a Rebus book, a Fox book, Doors Open II, or something completely different. No idea!”
Then there was a brief segue on to the Scottish independence referendum, to which he replies, “Rebus will vote no to independence. He’s a conservative at heart, with a small C. He doesn’t like change and doesn’t trust politicians. I think Siobhan (Clarke) would vote yes. She’s younger, more liberal, open to change. And I think I’m squarely in between, but just can’t see it happening.”
There was still time to mention the writers he most admires, name-checking Ruth Rendell and PD James again, as well as US crime writers Michael Connelly and Lawrence Block, plus Edinburgh’s Muriel Spark and his love of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which he reads ‘every year’, adding: “All my crime novels come down to this basic question central to Jekyll and Hide – why do people do bad things to each other in our society?
Then, on the back of a bleak question about Rebus’ future without the police, (“He’s not going to open a B’n’B or drive a taxi. He’s not going to be going overseas. He’s just going to sit in the Oxford Bar and drink himself to death. So hopefully he’s going back into the police.”) and one more tangent about whisky and cigarettes, Rankin was away.
Well, when I say away, I mean outside for a two-minute break before a marathon signing session. But throughout the event, he remained chipper, happy to talk and share his secrets. A top man all round.
Article produced with a respectful nod to Preston County Hall event co-organisers Elaine Silverwood, of Silverdell of Kirkham (www.silverdellbooks.com) and Lancashire County Council reading development guru Jake Hope and his team, plus Orion Books publicist Angela McMahon.