Ian Rankin: ‘After Sarah Everard, crime writers are starting to think: are the cops the good guys?’

'I didn’t find a way to bring Rebus back. He found a way': Ian Rankin - Chris Watt
'I didn’t find a way to bring Rebus back. He found a way': Ian Rankin - Chris Watt

In a plush Edinburgh hotel, Ian Rankin is regarding with confusion a dish containing six tiny, ornate cakes. They aren’t the sort of fare you’d find at The Oxford Bar across the city in the New Town, where Rankin is much more at home – as is his fictional alter ego, DI John Rebus, who has been the gloomy anti-hero of Rankin’s best-selling crime novels for nearly four decades. “Rebus is definitely a pint-and-newspaper man,” says Rankin. “The sort of man who likes sitting, late at night, with a malt whisky, in an empty room, listening to music. The sort of man I am, too.”

The borders separating Rankin from his fictional creation have always contained a degree of ambiguity for fans of the series, not least since Rankin often refers to Rebus as though he were a living person. “I didn’t find a way to bring him back,” he tells me of his return to writing about Rebus in 2012, following a five-year break after “retiring” him in 2007’s Exit Music. “He found a way.”

Still, Rankin has had to relinquish that creative relationship to the playwright Gregory Burke for Rebus’s long-awaited return to the TV screen, announced last week by the Nordic streaming service Viaplay. It will see Rebus as a forty-something divorcée navigating contemporary Edinburgh across various six-episode-long stories. No details regarding casting or scheduling are yet available.

In a way, it’s a surprise: Rebus’s relationship with the small screen has been unhappy. Rankin points to the STV/ITV adaptations which ran for four series between 2000 and 2007 and starred first John Hannah and then Ken Stott. “The problem is that they distilled an entire novel into 60 minutes, because they assumed audiences’ attention spans were becoming too short.” He became so disgruntled that he wrestled back the TV rights and has been looking for new partnerships ever since.

Still, do we really need another TV crime drama, even one featuring one of the best loved fictional detectives in the country? “Obviously we haven’t reached peak TV crime drama,” says Rankin genially. “Because the public appetite for it is seemingly limitless.” As it would appear to be for crime fiction, particularly true-crime, abetted by the boom in investigative podcasts. Does he worry that the hunger for real-life murder stories is challenging the imaginative authority of novelists? “Years ago, booksellers would tell me that their weirdest customers would be the true-crime fanatics who’d spend hours looking at photographs of murder victims but never buy the books,” he says with a laugh. “These days, the genre is more interested in why things happen than in sensationalising bodies on a slab.

Ken Stott as the sombre antihero detective in ITV's Rebus series based on Ian Rankin's novels - ITV/Shutterstock
Ken Stott as the sombre antihero detective in ITV's Rebus series based on Ian Rankin's novels - ITV/Shutterstock

“But I’m not sure that the public is drawn more to factual representations of reality than fictional ones. After all, we live in a post-truth world in which we don’t know who to trust. Conspiracy theories are rife. Which is why crime novels of paranoia, such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train are still very popular – stories in which you never know who is telling the truth.”

Rankin is now 62, although with his Britpop hair and lanky frame, he still has the look and gait of a 1990s indie musician. He wrote the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses (1987), while in his twenties, and for a few years lived in France with his wife Miranda so that he could write without distraction. (The couple have two grown-up sons, one of whom, Kit, has the neurogenetic disorder Angelman syndrome, and lives in an adult care-home.)

His Rebus has always cut a truculent figure, prone to seeing the world in terms of moral absolutes, even while himself sometimes wandering between the lines of the law. “He’s very much an Old Testament character. If you’ve done a bad thing he’s not going to forgive you for it,” says Rankin. “That’s where we differ. Sometimes in the books I’m having a conversation with him in which I try to tell him that sometimes the world isn’t quite as polarised or fixed as he thinks.”

Except, of course, the real world feels very polarised indeed. How does Rankin himself avoid it? Does he ever fear saying something that unleashes a digital storm? “My approach is to stay out of contentious arguments online. It’s frustrating because you only start to get answers to problems when you get some middle ground. But there’s no space for that in a Twitter exchange. So I don’t get into it. Life is a lot more comfortable as a result.”

What about debates over creative freedom? Has he ever been affected by the argument that writers can’t step outside their lived experience when it comes to creating characters?

'Rebus is definitely a pint-and-newspaper man': Ian Rankin in Edinburgh - Chris Watt
'Rebus is definitely a pint-and-newspaper man': Ian Rankin in Edinburgh - Chris Watt

“Well, Scottish society is still fairly white. So it’s not something anyone ever complained about. My scene-of-crime officer Haj Atwal is Asian, but he’s based on a real Edinburgh businessman who paid to be in my books. I have a chat with him every so often to check he’s still comfortable with me using him. But as a novelist, you write what you need to write.”

Rankin’s work is – slightly reductively – often bracketed in the “tartan noir” genre with fellow Scots such as William McIlvanney and Val McDermid. Certainly the desolate realism of the Rebus novels, with their often comfortless investigations into Scotland’s bleaker social history, feel a world away from the charming villages and amateur sleuths of the recent boom in cosy crime, popularised by Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series.

“Cosy crime feeds into people’s general despair about the state of the world. It allows them to retreat into a world that makes sense, in which ordinary people, rather than cops, can restore peace and order in the way of a Shakespeare comedy,” he says. “But restoration makes crime fiction schematic. In my books, just because one crime has been solved, it doesn’t mean that all crime is solved. Rebus has always known that however many people he puts in jail, there are more waiting round the corner.”

He even fears for the future of crime procedurals. “A lot of people who write them are starting to think – am I writing about the good guys? You look at what’s been happening in America with the murder of George Floyd and over here with Sarah Everard and you think: can you trust these people to defend us?” His most recent Rebus novel, A Heart Full of Headstones, tackles this idea head on, looking deep at the corruption within the DI’s former force. “We as writers are very conscious of this. We can’t be seen as being PR for police stations around the UK.”

Questions remain over whether there will be another Rebus novel beyond the planned sequel, the publication date for which has yet to be confirmed. All Rankin will say is that he’s taking next year off. He says he’s exhausted: he wrote “four times as hard” during the pandemic partly as a way of escaping lockdown.

But one wonders how easy it is for Rankin to exist without Rebus. “He has saved me a fortune in psychoanalyst’s fees. Anything bothering me, I feed it into him, and see how he deals with it. As a crime novelist, you get to play God over questions of life and death, so when the world is chaotic there’s a certain comfort in being able to control the universe in ways you can’t in the real world. And the world currently feels like a very complicated place.”

Rebus has been commissioned exclusively for Viaplay. Info: viaplay.com