“The first few pages were really nerve wracking,” says Ian Rankin, talking about bringing back Inspector John Rebus after a five year ‘pause’ in 2012’s Standing In Another Man’s Grave.
“But then it was like he’d never been away…desperate for a fag, and desperate for a pint.”
Rankin’s many fans are obviously delighted at the much-loved character’s return, with the novel shooting to the top of best-seller lists and the next – Saints of the Shadow Bible – eagerly awaited.
He reads from the soon-to-be-published novel, which sees ex-retiree Rebus return again to the force, albeit in a demoted position. “I specifically set it in March this year,” says Rankin, admitting he placed the action before the Police Scotland amalgamation of the regional forces to avoid having to deal with the complexities that would introduce.
The segment he reads is classic Rebus, and captures the character’s discomfort at being present at a police party attended by local bigwigs and familiar characters including Siobhan Clarke — and an antagonist in the previously good-guy shape of Malcolm Fox.
“It’s interesting for me to show Fox from the other side,” says Rankin. “Though I’ve done a bit of a rehab job on him!”
Chair Alan Morrison, Group Arts Editor of the Herald Group, picks up on this point, discussing the dual nature of Rankin’s characters: including Fox, and even more interestingly, series gangster villain Big Ger Cafferty.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the ability to do good and to be evil,” says Rankin, citing such classic Scottish works as Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde as influences. “Cafferty is the devil — he tempts Rebus to the dark side.”
Standing In Another Man’s Grave took Rebus out of his familiar Edinburgh surroundings and placed him further north, investigating a cold case series of murders on and around the A9. “I wanted to make him uncomfortable,” says Rankin, “and to show a different sense of Scotland. The research was great fun — and all the petrol was tax deductible!”
Answering questions from the audience, Rankin goes on to talk about his methods of planning and research, describing his big file of newspaper clippings and notes from which he forms his ideas, then how he conducts most of his research between his first and second drafts (“not even my wife reads my first drafts”), focusing initially on the writing and the plots for which he is so well-renowned.
He explains then how his relationship with the real-life police is “not quite germane, but almost”, with the author only approaching them when he has a specific question relating to his research which he needs answered.
Then, when asked if we will ever see a return of Rebus to the small (or large) screen, Rankin expresses a wish to see the tales told in a format where the length can do them justice. And, although Ken Stott is ‘up for it’, Rankin is waiting to be approached by someone who shares his desire to see the Rebus stories given room to breathe.
“Until they do them properly,” he says, to applause from the audience, “I’m not letting them do it.”
But whether the televisual powers-that-be comply or not is mostly irrelevant — the fact that Ian Rankin shows no sign of stopping producing brilliantly observed slices of Scottish crime fiction is what really matters.
Ian Rankin was in conversation with Alan Morrison at the Bailie Gifford Tent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 12 August.