Semper letteris mandate
Recently Celtic Curmudgeon had the opportunity to sit with our favourite crime novelist, Ian Rankin, over some gin and tonics to discuss research, childhood, and the origins of the name “Rebus,” his moody, rather existential Edinburgh police detective. We came away with the two most important rules of writing fiction, which you too will discover by the end of this interview. Read on — if you’re ready for the truth.
How did you come to write Rebus?
When I was at university and studying Scottish fiction and literary theory I got an idea for rewriting Jekyll and Hyde, which I though of as the archetypal Edinburgh novel. Although it’s ostensibly set in London, it’s very much about the Edinburgh character, the character of the city, and it’s written by a son of the city, Robert Louis Stevenson. I thought I’d update it to the ’80s in Edinburgh and I thought the cop would be my hero, the Jekyll character, and the Hyde character would be someone from his past to whom he was very, very close, almost like brothers. And the Hyde character would be out to kill the Jekyll character. That was Knots and Crosses, but nobody got it. And because I’d made him a cop it was suddenly a “whodunnit.” I was absolutely gutted, as we say in Scotland. I couldn’t believe it. It was in the crime bookshelves, it wasn’t in the literature bookshelves, and here I was doing my PhD going to become a professor of English, all this sort of thing, and I found I’d become an accidental crime writer.
Then one day somebody asked, “Whatever happened to the guy Rebus? I liked him a lot.” And I said, “Did you?” So I thought I’d try again and make it absolutely clear that i was updating Jekyll and Hyde. I wrote a book called Hyde and Seek, with Hyde in the title as a pun, and I quoted deliberately from Jekyll and Hyde in the book, and I brought Rebus back to do the investigating, and still nobody got it. And by then it was too late. I was kind of hooked on this guy, Rebus. I liked him.
Your books are very strong in the police procedurals. How did you research that?
Well, I didn’t. I made it up.
I got my fingers caught the very first time. When I was researching Knots & Crosses and I was a student I though, “Right, how do you research something like this?” So I wrote to the big guy, the Chief Constable of the Lowland and Borders Police: “Sir, I am writing a novel which will lift the lid off the true nature of policing in Edinburgh and show the cops to be every bit as bent as the guys they’re investigating. Will you help me?” And I got a nice letter back from the chief constable who said to go down to the police station at 2:00 on Tuesday afternoon and see Detective Constable this and Detective Sergeant that.
Well, Monday I had a tutorial in the afternoon which decanted into the pub until midnight. I got back home hung over, and remembered I had to do an essay for the next day. It was on Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, which I hadn’t read, so I got some caffeine tablets and a great pot of coffee and stayed up all night reading Nostromo and then writing my essay. I fell into the bed fully clothed, slept, woke up and ran into the university with my essay. I slapped it down on my tutor’s desk, then remembered, “Shit, I’ve got to go to the police station.” So I turned up there looking like a tramp. I was unshaven, bloodshot eyes, greasy hair, baggy jeans with holes in the knees, army greatcoat from a second-hand store — the works. The cops looked at me kind of suspiciously and said, “You’re writing a book? What kind of book are you writing?” And I said, “Well, it’s a whodunnit and this policeman’s getting secret messages sent to him, and children are being abducted and he’s got to work out who’s doing it and why.”
What I didn’t know was that these very detectives were investigating the abduction of a young girl from a Fun Fair outside Edinburgh. It had just happened. So they said, “Well, would you like to see how a police investigation works?” They took me into an enquiry room, sat me down at the wrong end of a computer screen, and said, “let’s just say you were a suspect in a case.” So I pulled my notebook out and thought, “This is great.” They started asking me questions, which I answered while writing it all down, still thinking, “This is great. I’m getting a lot out of this.” I looked behind me at the stage and there were six detectives making sure I wasn’t going to make a run for it.
It wasn’t until I went back to Fife that weekend and told this story to my dad, and he said, “You stupid bugger! They thought you’d come in to confess?!”
That taught me a valuable lesson, which was: “Do no research.”
And so for quite a few books after that I didn’t do any research at all, I just made it all up. Then around book four or five, I was doing a gig in Edinburgh. Two copes came up to get books signed and they said, “Look, we’re detectives working in Edinburgh and we really like your books — you get some of the facts wrong, but we really like the books.” I said, “Well, give me your phone number and I will pester you deeply.” So they were my entry into the world of the police, and they introduced me to pathologists, and lawyers and social workers — whoever I needed.
I still make mistakes. Rebus works in a real police station called St. Leonard’s and I hadn’t been in it until last year for a look, and I though, “Christ, your interview rooms are really small.” I’ve got Rebus pacing up and down the interview rooms and they’re actually the size of a shoe-box. But they said, that’s okay, we like the canteen in your books a lot better because it’s open longer than ours, and the food’s a lot better as well.
Rebus. What a name.
Yeah, well. Smart-arssed student comes up with a name that means “picture puzzle” for a cop who’s getting picture puzzles sent to him through the post. I didn’t meet anyone called Rebus for years and years and years, and I went all around the world looking in phone booths. And then a guy told me it’s actually a Portuguese word meaning a fight or a struggle. And I thought, “All right, so he’s Portuguese.” Then it turned out it wasn’t true. My Portuguese translator came over to Edinburgh and I said, “Did you know Rebus is a Portuguese word?” and he said, “No, it isn’t.”
Then when we moved back to Edinburgh two years ago I started the long and difficult task of finding which pub would be my local. This doesn’t mean the pub nearest you, but the pub you can comfortable struggle home from, the pub where you feel safe and comfortable inside. But I was having bad luck. I was going into bars and they were saying, “You can’t stand there, that’s where old Jock used to stand before he died.” Talk about feeling uncomfortable.
Eventually this second-hand book dealer invited me to his pub and he introduced me to hits couple in the corner: Mr. and Mrs. Joe Rebus. I said, “Shit, I’ve never met anybody called Rebus. I’ve been all around the world and here you are living in Edinburgh.” it’s only them and their son are the only Rebuses in Scotland. They’ve got the phone book to show me and there they are: J. Rebus, Rankin Drive. It was like one of those X-Files moments. I said, “Joe, did you know about this, and he said, “Yeah. We always thought it was such a bizarre coincidence.” I said, “Did you read the books?” And he said, “No, we couldn’t be bothered.”
They’ve read them now.
Stuff like that happens so often I’ve given up.
Is it at all restricting to write a continued series like Rebus?
Sometimes. I get ideas for books but they can’t be Rebus books. I’ve got a great idea for a book, but it’s set in a prisoner of war camp towards the end of World War Two, but it has to go into the bottom of the drawer at the moment until I get some time to do non-Rebus projects. At th e moment I’ve got a three book deal, and once I’ve written the three books I’m going to go off and do some different stuff for a while. In fact I’m writing something for TV right now that isn’t Rebus. I got a commission from the BBC but it might not work.
What was your childhood like?
I was kind of obsessive as a kid. It wasn’t enough just to read comic books, I wanted to write comic books. And so I used to get bits of paper and fold them up and fold them again and cut the edges and make little eight-page booklets. Put little stick insect-men in the little boxes and have bubbles coming out of their mouths. But I went to extremes. I would have limited editions, one of each comic, and I would also have free gifts like games and badges and things.
And then when I got interested in pop music at the age of ten it wasn’t enough to listen to pop music, I’d invent a band in my head. I invented a group called Kaput, and the lead singer was called the In Kaput, and that was me. I had a guitarist called Blue lightning, a bassist called Zed Killer Macintosh. I drew pictures of the band and designed their albums on the inner jackets on my mom’s LPs. And I started writing their lyrics. (I entered one of their poems into a poetry contest and it won second prize. It was called “Euthanasia,” and was about and auntie of mine that I really hated. She went ballistic when she found out about it.) I’d plan their world tours. and they would appear on television chart-shows, shows that play the top ten every week, which meant I had to invent nine other bands, and they all had to have songs and personnel.
When I got to college I was writing poems that were stories so I wrote a short story for a competition and it wont the competition. That was about my auntie’s brother who was a notorious alcoholic, and so she went ballistic all over again. And I learned a very valuable lesson: write about what you don’t know. And the one thing I knew nothing about was the police, so I guess that was as good a reason as any to write about Rebus. Then my auntie wouldn’t write me out of her will any more.
Those are the two things I learned. “Do no research,” and “Write about what you don’t know.”
An inspector Rebus TV movie is in production by the BBC. Black and Blue stars John Hannah, the “Good” boyfriend to Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors. We may get to see it over here next spring or summer.