‘He’s the brawling Rebus of the early books’: Ian Rankin’s detective is back – and he’s bad

Outlander's Richard Rankin takes on the lead role
Outlander's Richard Rankin takes on the lead role - Mark Mainz

John Rebus is not one of those coppers who is content to spend his time staring at a screen, sifting JK Rowling’s tweets for offensive content. Before the opening credits have rolled on the first episode of the BBC’s new adaptation of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels, he is taking a hands-on approach to reducing Edinburgh’s crime rate: by beating up and attempting to suffocate his nemesis, the gangster kingpin “Big Ger” Cafferty.

Only the intervention of his superior officer prevents DS Rebus from finishing Cafferty off. The scene sets the tone for a new iteration of Rebus that taps into a more sinister aspect of the character than previous adaptations of Rankin’s crime novels.

When Rebus was played by John Hannah and later Ken Stott in the ITV series of the 2000s, one never had a sense that he was likely to fly off the handle and try to murder even the most evil of criminals. The gangly, baby-faced Hannah, better known at the time as the upper-class twit in the Mummy films, did not convince as the weathered ex-Para Rebus; he later admitted he’d been miscast.

Stott, older and burlier, looked more suitable but was given scripts that sanitised the character: he became a mildly crotchety ladies’ man, an Edinburgh Morse, rather than the minatory anti-hero of Rankin’s books.

John Hannah played Inspector Detective Rebus in the first series in 2000
John Hannah played Inspector Detective Rebus in the first series in 2000 - Alibi

Now, however, we have a Rebus who looks the part, as played by Outlander star Richard Rankin (no relation to the author). Here is a Rebus who seems like he can handle himself – yes, he’s keen on booze and fags, but he’s also seen keeping up a regimen of chin-ups (a reminder that in the books Rebus was fit enough to be considered for the SAS, although he failed the psych tests).

Moreover, Richard Rankin brings to the role a kind of demonic charisma, a dangerous edge, that makes him more faithful than his predecessors to Ian Rankin’s Rebus – a character who, over the course of 24 books, has committed perjury, used a child molester as unwitting bait to trick Cafferty into committing assault, and been sent for retraining after throwing tea at his boss.

Ian Rankin thinks the “terrific” new adaptation has caught the essence of his creation. “He’s very much the brawling Rebus of the early books who thinks that physicality is the way to get a result: he doesn’t always make the right decisions, he’s hot-headed,” he tells me. “And that darkness that’s at the root of the guy, I think Richard Rankin brings out really well.”

Dramatist Gregory Burke leapt at the offer to write the six-part series. “You rarely get a chance to write about something as close to your own landscape as the Rebus character is,” he says. “We grew up, me and Ian, literally a few miles apart – like Rebus, we’re Fifers, from a working-class mining area, now living and working in Edinburgh.”

Burke is best known for his 2006 stage play Black Watch about Scottish squaddies in Iraq; Rankin approached him to write the series because he knew Burke would be good at capturing the vulnerability that Rebus’s toughness exists in part to mask. (His military past has left him with PTSD, which affects him particularly badly whenever he fails to prevent a murder.)

“Greg’s always been fascinated in his work in the macho exterior of the Scottish male,” says Rankin, “but also the frailties and the fears that lurk just below that façade.”

Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin
Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin - David Levenson/Getty Images

This volatile characterisation of Rebus reflects a recurring theme in the most recent novels: the re-examination of Rebus’s past behaviour in an era less inclined to tolerate police rule-breaking. He has been investigated for evidence-tampering, cover-ups and worse: there have been hints that the next book, Midnight and Blue (published in October), will see him banged up for murder.

The pervasive corruption of the police in general has also been a dominant motif. “I think anyone who writes police procedurals in contemporary times has to be aware that police are not regarded universally as the heroes any more, so you have to represent them warts and all,” says Rankin.

“The last couple of Rebus novels have borrowed things that have happened mostly within the Metropolitan Police but extending that to Scotland, saying there’s no reason why that can’t happen here: the police covering up grievous and serious errors of judgment and crimes.

“Younger writers are steering away from writing about cops. They’ll write about amateur detectives, they’ll write psychological thrillers that don’t need the presence of a police officer, because it’s getting tougher to present a police officer in heroic terms.”

Things may be changing, however. “One of the things we wanted to explore was how Rebus’s attitudes might be very different from some of the younger officers,” comments Burke. “He was one of those policemen who grew up in the Lothian and Borders police [disbanded in 2013], which had a very fearsome reputation: they ruled Edinburgh.”

Younger police officers no longer think they should be a law unto themselves, which brings its own problems, says Burke: “What many policemen will tell you now is that the villains used to be scared of them and they’re not anymore. Although that is to do with budget cuts as well as attitudes changing.”

Lucie Shorthouse stars as Siobhan Clarke
Lucie Shorthouse stars as DC Siobhan Clarke - Mark Mainz

The new series sees Rebus clash with his progressive young DC Siobhan Clarke (Lucie Shorthouse), who, to make matters worse, is English. “It reflects that Edinburgh is a contested city, where lots of Scottish people don’t live anymore: it’s too expensive,” says Burke. “The toon’s a theme park these days,” Rebus rages at Clarke. “F---ing Instagrammers. Quidditch nonces.”

Clarke is one of several characters whom Burke has taken from Rankin’s books: others include the gangster Darryl Christie and the police complaints investigator Malcolm Fox (“A very Edinburgh character but of a different kind, a stickler for the rules, almost a fundamentalist presbyterian type,” says Burke).

Rankin “gave me carte blanche”, Burke tells me, when it came to how he used the source material, so he has come up with an original story with characters, plotlines and ideas plucked from various stages of the Rebus canon. “The word ‘Rebus’ means puzzle, and I’ve made it a [jigsaw] puzzle in a way, a mosaic of things that the readers will recognise.”

Mia Mackenzie plays Sammy Rebus, the only child of the Detective Inspector
Mia Mackenzie plays Sammy Rebus, the only child of the Detective Inspector - Alan Peebles

Part of the intensity of the new series is due to its placing Rebus’s disastrous family relationships, largely ignored in the ITV version, centre stage. Rankin is particularly pleased that Burke has made Rebus’s brother Michael a central character in the story.

“I threw him away kind of cheaply very early, and later I wished I’d kept him around. And Gregory latched on to him straight away and said there’s a lot we can do with the relationship between these two.” The first episode reveals Rebus to be, surprise surprise, not the best sibling or parent: he punches Michael across the room for backchatting him, in the presence of his 12-year-old daughter (“Mum’s right: you are an arsehole”).

What truly fascinates Burke are the dualities in the Rebus stories, the pairings that are different sides of the same coin: Rebus vs Michael, Rebus vs Cafferty, and, above all, Rebus vs himself. “[Rankin] writes in a continuum of the literature of east Scotland, of the dualism of [Robert Louis] Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and James Hogg’s Justified Sinner.”

Rankin agrees. “I’ve just been to Samoa to pay my respects to Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave – which I won’t do again because it’s a hell of a climb – because he set me on this path, as it were. There’s always a conflict going on within Rebus, those two sides of him, the Jekyll and Hyde, at war. There is a good guy in there. And that’s why, despite everything, we end up rooting for him.”

Rebus begins on BBC One tonight at 9.25pm