Ian Rankin: Writing Whydunnits rather than Whodunnits

It’s day one of the Galle Literary Festival, but Ian Rankin is too absorbed in a conversation about British crime fiction to make his way down to the Fort. “Can you imagine Ms. Marple walking into a police station and the cops saying, ‘Oh thank God, Ms. Marple, thank God you’ve arrived to help us deal with this racist murder in this housing estate’?” While it’s true that Rankin’s own Inspector Rebus rarely receives a warm welcome at St Leonard’s Police Station, that’s beside the point. Rebus is going to be a star in Galle.

Rankin, who holds the record for having six novels simultaneously in the Scottish top 10 bestseller lists, insists on placing his fictional detective in very real world contexts. Over the course of 17 books, xenophobia, sexual abuse, religious bigotry and political corruption have all been introduced into Rebus’ universe. And even more unusually, Rankin writes detective novels where justice is not always served.
“It doesn’t bother me if the reader works out on page one who the killer is,” says Ian, “for me that’s the least interesting part of the story…the interesting part is the effect the crime will have on the world, and the reason the crime was allowed to happen in the first place.”

He even has a name for his style – whydunits rather than whodunits. “I’ve got a theme that I want to explore and a crime that will allow me to explore that theme, but I don’t always know how it’s going to work out until I’ve finished the first draft,” …and sometimes not even then. ‘Set in Darkness’ (2000) was meant to be about the Scottish parliament, says Rankin. “There was this guy who was meant to be running for parliament in book one, elected in book two and book three would be about the parliament at work. Fifty pages into the draft of book one and he was dead – the novel decided it didn’t need him anymore.”

His publishers are sometimes frustrated to find themselves at the mercy of a vague plot. Though he is frequently pressed to tidy up his endings, Rankin’s approach seems to work well for a particularly loyal fan base. Often, a new Rebus novel will sell several hundred thousand copies within months of its release. Translated into 20 languages, Rankin has successfully immortalized Rebus’ Edinburgh in the minds of millions. There’s even a walking tour that brings visitors to the street on which Ian’s detective lives and travellers often end up at Rebus’ drinking hole – the Oxford Bar.

On occasion, they’ll find Rankin there, but he wryly admits that he doesn’t match up to their expectations.” “They’re often very disappointed when they meet me, because I’m not like him. I’m not as complex as him or as damaged or dangerous. I think they feel a bit short changed,” he says grinning. With his light Scottish brogue and quick smile, Rankin isn’t likely to be cast as the anti-hero in any case…and in this case looks don’t deceive. He assures me that despite all those hours spent immersed in bloody murder and violence, “crime writers tend to be very well balanced. We channel it out, we exorcise the demons. It’s very therapeutic and cathartic to write crime fiction.”

Rebus aside, critics argue that Edinburgh is the real star of the Rebus series. The author himself seems endlessly fascinated by the city. He spends hours walking around, simply observing people at work and play. Inspired by the intimate portrayal of Dublin in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ he says he wanted the Rebus series to do explore Edinburgh as thoroughly. “If Edinburgh were to disappear in a puff of smoke, you could bring it back to life using my books as a template.”

But the Edinburgh of Rankin’s novels is not one tourists are familiar with. When he first began writing in the eighties, the city was among those worst affected by HIV/AIDS in Europe. Heroin flooded the streets as crime rates rose. “No one was talking about it or writing about it.” When Rankin decided to highlight these issues in his novel, he brought to it the perspective of an outsider to the city.

Born in Cardenden, Fife, in the Scottish Lowlands, Rankin says he grew up in a village where everyone knew everybody else. “It was very claustrophobic and I felt very different.” When he went to university to study literature, he found himself drawn to the idea of writing something more accessible, something that might appeal to someone like his father, a dock worker whose taste in novels leaned towards thrillers. “I was feeling quite schizophrenic – was studying for my PhD wanting to write the kind of books that someone like me wouldn’t study in university.”

Once having decided to take on the world of popular fiction, Rankin found the going tough. His resume includes unexpected stints as swineherd (he lost that job when a pig got drunk and died after he fed the herd fermented grape fruit skins), alcohol researcher (stop the presses: teenagers will lie about the exact amount of alcohol they’ve consumed) and a vocalist for a punk rock band ‘The Dancing Pigs,’ (he’s working hard to suppress old recordings). Much of this is detailed in a diary he kept from his early teens into his thirties. The author will occasionally flip back to the pages where he was struggling to establish himself as a writer. “It’s fun to go back to read the young, tortured Ian’s thoughts on failure,” he says. And there seemed no dearth of it – his first novel – ‘Summer Rites’ – was never published and the first in the Rebus series ‘Knots and Crosses’ (1987) was turned down five times by publishers.

When it finally sold, Rankin felt compelled to stick with his character. “The first Rebus novel was meant to be the last Rebus novel,” says Rankin, “but he got to me, he got beneath my skin.” Still, he would have plenty of time to second guess his decision. “I have all the rejection letters and all the little notes to myself in my diary,” says Rankin, adding, “up until ‘Black and Blue’ I was always on the verge of being kicked out of my publishing house.”

Published in 1997, ‘Black and Blue’ was the 8th Inspector Rebus novel and it won the Macallan Gold Dagger for Fiction. It would still be a few more years and a few more books before Rankin could afford to pay for the mortgage on an apartment in Edinburgh, but by 2002, Rankin was being hailed as the ‘King of Tartan Noir’. That year he was awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Jubilee Birthday Honours List. Having to work so hard for his success kept him grounded, while the long wait prepared him well for it, he says. And despite having climbed to the top he’s never really slacked off.

But that might change. The author will turn 50 this year. Having turned out a novel a year for more than a decade, he’s decided to take 2010 off – and use it to decide where he’d like to go from here. “I just want to step off the treadmill for a little while.”

After having spent over two decades together, it was also supposed to mark a parting of ways for Rankin and Rebus – now sixty, the latter reached retirement age in 2007. But the surly detective was far from ready to go quietly into the night, and Rankin is as reluctant to let go. “I didn’t want him to retire and he didn’t want to retire. But the books take place in real time, he ages in real time unlike most fictional detectives…stopping the clock and not having him age would be to cheat.”

But Rankin is still keeping an eye on Rebus. “I know where he is – he’s working cold cases in the same building as Malcolm Fox (the star of Rankin’s newest book, ‘The Complaints’). Fox, who couldn’t be more unlike Rebus, polices the police and Rankin is considering having Fox investigate Rebus for some past misdemeanour. He might even do another novel based on Rebus’ current cold case or on Siobhan, another recurring character.

But for now, Fox is allowing Rankin to write about a different Edinburgh. “The city is just a huge crime scene as far as Rebus was concerned,” he says, but Fox appreciates it. On a personal level, he might even be capable of serious emotional commitment. “I can see Fox settling down…” says Rankin, but what he can’t imagine is writing 17 books about him.

Clearly, Rebus is going to be sorely missed. Still, whatever the year brings, Rankin intends to keep writing – “it’s how I make sense of the world,” he says simply.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on January 31, 2010. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Saman Kariyawasam.

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