It’s hard to know what to make of Ian Rankin. On the one hand, he’s a detective writer — the author of more than 30 books, almost all of them dealing with death and murder, with the dark and twisted underbelly of his hometown Edinburgh, and with Detective Inspector John Rebus, a scraggly, hard-scrabbly investigator who is, indisputably, one of fiction’s all-time great antiheroes. On the other hand, Rankin is so much more than just a crime novelist, and his books so much more than trashy genre fiction.
Human beings are endlessly fascinated in questions of the moral and immoral. Good and evil.
His name is always first in a list — one that inevitably includes the likes of Edgar Allan Poe or Wilkie Collins — of genre writers whose books transcend into the heights of proper literature. They’re studied in university classes (Rankin himself spent three years pursuing a PhD on the author Muriel Spark before turning to writing full-time). They’re read by heads of state and members of various parliaments. And they’re just as concerned with social issues and the State of the World as anything by Franzen or Roth or Atwood. Plus, yeah, they’re smashing good reads. This month, Rankin releases Even Dogs in the Wild, his 36th book and the 20th featuring Rebus. We caught up with the Scotsman at his home in Edinburgh to find out what makes his worlds — the real one and the fictional one — keep ticking.
Last year you took a sabbatical from crime writing. What did you do?
I did a lot of nothing. I have a place up in the north of Scotland, where there’s no Internet or anything. I sat in the pub there and ate lobster, because the guy who runs it has a little krill and he gets lobster fresh from the ocean. But the whole thing came about because I had a couple of friends around my age, in their mid-50s, who died. It just made me think that maybe I wanted to step off the funfair attraction for a while and kick back.
So why come back to Rebus? What is it about him you can’t kick?
Man, I wish I knew. When I wrote the first book, in 1985, I was studying literature at the University of Edinburgh. He just popped into my head one night as a fully formed character. It was meant to be a one-off. I had no interest in doing a series. But I came to the realization that a detective is a pretty good way of looking at society. Because a cop has access to every layer of it. I wanted to write about Edinburgh, I wanted to write about social issues, and I thought a detective novel was a pretty good way of doing that.
It’s fun to play God, to have control over life and death and the scope of the story.
How does detective fiction lend itself to studying social issues?
The cliché is to say we’re all detectives trying to make sense of the world. Writers become writers because they’re all trying to make sense of the world around them, to give it a shape and understand the big moral questions around them. If you want to reduce it, then crime fiction comes down to a very basic question, which is: why do humans keep doing bad things to each other? A lot of it comes down to the seven deadly sins. It’s the kind of stuff you find in the bible. Human beings are endlessly fascinated in questions of the moral and immoral. Good and evil.
By reading detective fiction, we get the kind of frisson of something very exciting, from the safety of our armchairs. And at its best, I think crime fiction asks the reader big questions about the world as it is. I’m not saying we offer answers. But we kind of flag up things in the world that we’re not too happy about.
What do you like about crime fiction, as a writer?
It’s cathartic. Any personal issues or questions about the state of the world, I can dump those on Rebus. It’s like having a psychoanalyst. That’s why crime writers are usually well-balanced individuals, because we’ve had our visit to the psychoanalyst. It’s also fun. It’s fun to play God, to have control over life and death and the scope of the story. It’s like a Peter Pan figure: we’re playing with our imaginary friend.
Your books can get pretty dark — and eerily true to real-life headlines. Where does all that come from?
Usually it comes from people telling me stories, or seeing stuff in a newspaper. I’ll go: what if that had happened in Scotland? What does that say about society? Could be a story about the economy. Could be a story about refugees. So I just clip them and put them in a big folder and see what grabs my attention later. Sometimes ex-cops will tell me things. My last book came about because I was going to a lot of retirement parties for cops, and people were telling stories about the ’70s and ’80s, when policing was very different, less politically correct, less paperwork.
What’s your relationship to the cops?
Occasionally, because I know a lot of cops, sometimes they might slip me some information and I’ll let it slip onto Twitter. And it looks like I’m the first to know — before journalists or other cops know about it. There have been a few books where I’ve written something and a few years later it appeared to come true. And then people think you’ve got inside information. There’s one woman I bumped into in a supermarket and she wasn’t at all happy that Cafferty, my gangster, lived in the same neighbourhood as her. I think she was just worried that it’d bring down house prices.
But you don’t ever embed yourself and help solve crime?
I do occasionally — I mean very occasionally — get a letter from a fan saying something like, “My brother was murdered and the police haven’t done a good job of investigating it. Can you help me?” And I go, “No, of course not, you don’t want a fiction writer for that.” But it’s painful to think there are people out there who think you’re their last resort.
Steven King recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about being a prolific genre writer. He essentially called literary novelists like Jonathan Franzen lazy for taking so long. Do you agree?
Absolutely! If you get genre writers together in a room we all tease literary authors. How could it possibly take 10 years to write a book? Like, come on. If you’re writing crime or science fiction or whatever, you’re supposed to write a book a year. And we do it. And I enjoy doing it! But as a reader, there’s nothing better than discovering a new writer or a new series and you know you’re only at book one and there’s another 19 after it. You can just lose yourself in that world.