Ian Rankin and Inspector Rebus: The Official Story of the Bestselling Author and His Ruthless Detectiveby Craig Cabell
Detective John Rebus first appeared in Ian Rankin's 1987 bestseller Knots and Crosses and has since gone on to appear in 17 books and numerous short stories. For more than 20 years these critically acclaimed novels have delighted readers and set a benchmark in contemporary crime fiction. These notoriously gritty stories have been adapted into a/i>
Detective John Rebus first appeared in Ian Rankin's 1987 bestseller Knots and Crosses and has since gone on to appear in 17 books and numerous short stories. For more than 20 years these critically acclaimed novels have delighted readers and set a benchmark in contemporary crime fiction. These notoriously gritty stories have been adapted into a television seriesthe public cannot get enough of this hard-drinking, no-nonsense, complex detective. Although the fictional Inspector retired to the backwaters of Edinburgh's dark side in the 2007 novel Exit Music, the books endure. Here, Craig Cabell draws from his extensive interviews with Ian Rankin to explore both the writer and his creation, and how their relationship has developed over the years. He also investigates the dark cellars and sinister back streets of Rebus' Edinburgha dark, foreboding city that shatters any stereotypes of shortbread and kilts. Learn about the unusual connection between Rankin and Rebus, how the author was a punk musician and swineherd before becoming a writer, and why he was so inspired by fellow Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his masterpiece The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
"For Rebus readers, consider this one required reading." Booklist
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Ian Rankin and Inspector Rebus
By Craig Cabell
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2010 Craig Cabell
All rights reserved.
'Here's the scoop: crime writing is sexy.' Ian Rankin presents Criminal Minded
Ian Rankin was born in Cardenden, Fife, on 28 April 1960, 'a rough working class town', he explains. Cardenden is situated in central Fife, between Kirkcaldy and Dunfermline, and sprang up in Victorian times with the growth of the coal-mining industry. Today, the mines are closed and unemployment is endemic.
Rankin's home was 17 Craigmead Terrace, a small house his parents lived in from the time it was built in 1960 – shortly after Rankin was born – until his father's untimely death in 1990.
Rankin's parents got together through tragic circumstances. His father had been married before and his wife had died; his mother had been married before and her husband had died. So they met as widow and widower. Rankin would state that, 'Death was the reason they got together and had me ... There has always been the shadow of death in my family.' Interesting thing to say and may explain book titles such as Mortal Causes, The Naming of the Dead, Dead Souls, Let It Bleed, Death Comes at the End (well, he has used the odd song title too!). Rankin's mother was a school dinner lady but sadly died when he was only 18. 'She died when she was only in her early fifties. They said it was a stroke and then MS, although eventually they called it lung cancer.'
This proved to be a very difficult time for Rankin and may explain his deep-rooted interest in the plight of people of all classes and how they struggle against incredible odds; it's a constant theme in his books.
His father died at the age of 72, an age Rankin doesn't consider to be that old. He was a dock worker, so Rankin grew up in a strong working-class environment, with two half-sisters as a legacy from his parents' previous marriages.
He went to school at Auchterderran Junior High for a couple of years and then Beath High School in Cowdenbeath, the latter being a four-mile bus ride from his home. Rankin gives a gritty picture of his formative years: 'The job opportunities in Fife during the 1960s and '70s were not diverse. You would either go into the Armed Forces or the Police Force. That was pretty much it. People would get to the age of 16 or 18 and just leave and you'd never see them again.'. Not surprising then that the fictional John Rebus did both (Armed Forces and Police Force), as he was also born in Cardenden and in the same cul-de-sac as Rankin! But what about Rankin himself? Did he feel that these careers were the only options open to him? Perhaps to begin with he did; but he wanted something different and, not unlike the proverbial fairytale, he escaped and achieved it. He went on to higher education and broke the mould for Cardenden and his own family, who had never pursued further education.
In the light of all this, we could argue that through Rebus, Rankin has written about his breathtaking escape from the normal career path of a lad from Cardenden.
This isn't completely true but there are some strong parallels between the author and his creation.
Rankin would say that he started his literary life as a short story writer – well, a comic book writer to be brutal.
At the ages of six, seven and eight, he would draw stick-men cartoons with speech bubble stories, folding sheets of plain paper to form little booklets with typical boy-themes such as football, war and space. This went on for several years until it was pointed out to him that he couldn't draw!
At the age of 10 or 11 he started to listen to music, but his 'obsessive' (his word not mine) behaviour meant that it wasn't good enough just to listen to the music, he wanted to form a band too. His friends weren't interested but he decided to write song lyrics and form a band in his head called The Amoebas.
This vivid fantasy world may give the general reader the impression that Rankin was a stay-at-home goody-goody but he wasn't. He had tough friends while growing up and he eventually did his own bit of thuggery with them, including shoplifting and fighting. Reading became Rankin's escape and was probably his saviour too. It certainly gave him a broader outlook academically, because if one reads at a young age then one tends to want to write, and the writing bug separated Rankin from his friends: 'I grew up feeling "different" from my family and friends, and trying desperately to blend in.' He said this in an almost throw-away sentence towards the end of Rebus's Scotland and said something similar to artist Jack Vettriano: 'I did like my own company. I felt very different. I felt like a chameleon. I was trying to look like I fitted in but I didn't really fit in ... from an early age I felt they wouldn't understand because what I was doing was so out [of touch] with the tribe I was with; I was this dude who wanted to write poetry and short stories.'
Writing certainly separated Rankin from his street-corner pals and family while growing up, and that distance formed the central theme of isolation – albeit in a more extreme way – in his first attempt at a novel, as he explained: 'My first novel was only about 40 pages long but it was about a teenager whose parents didn't understand him so he ran away to London ... there was a lot of autobiography in that. I probably wanted to run away to London but I didn't have the gumption to do it. I always kept that side of [my personality] hidden away.
It is very easy to blow this part of Rankin's life out of proportion. He didn't alienate himself; he simply became a little secretive in order to protect his hobby. I once asked him about his early friendships in juxtaposition to his growing interest in reading: 'I used to hang around street corners and there would be great affiliation between the guys and we would fight other youths in the towns nearby. We would pass around books like Skinhead and Suedehead, lots of pulp fiction.' So his friends did read; but Rankin took it one step further when he couldn't get into the cinema to see the films that were an extension of the pulp fiction he passed around his cronies: 'Suddenly along came A Clockwork Orange. I wasn't old enough to go and see it at the flicks; I was only 11 or 12 when it was released, so I went to the library and got it out. I couldn't believe that the librarian would let me do that. And the same thing happened with The Godfather. Nobody said to me, "Hey, are you 18?" And I suddenly found that there was no censorship with books. And therefore I started reading voraciously. I started reading the books of the films I couldn't get in to see. And my parents were so thrilled! They didn't care what I was reading as long as I was reading and not watching the television.'
Here lies the rub. Rankin wasn't pressured into reading: he chose to read in order to get at the stories he couldn't see at the cinema. Couple this with his imagination and general interest in books/comics, a strong hobby started to evolve in his life.
We have already found that Rankin didn't feel that he fitted in too well with his friends, he also didn't want to stay in Cardenden all his life and become a serviceman or policeman, he wanted to break away from all of that, as he qualified to Jack Vettriano: '... how I started to write books ... replace the real drab Fife of the '60s with an alternative universe.' This 'feel-good' world he created for himself, the security blanket of escape, accidentally made him a self-starter in the academic world. It gave him a perspective about books and therefore a grounding that took him further along the educational path and yes, he can thank himself for that; with some quality English teachers along the way (who almost act like spiritual guides throughout his formative years).
On that basis it is perhaps no surprise that in the last year of High School Rankin was sent back to his Primary School, Denend, to follow the daily life of a teacher, as the noble profession seemed to be his obvious calling!
He didn't enjoy the experience too much, but something inspirational did happen to him in the classroom while there and kindled the flame of an academic profession: he became aware of a nationwide poetry competition.
It is said that writers are born, not made, and it is clear that this strain of creative pursuit was embedded in Rankin from a very early age and endured throughout his character-building formative years. It then evolved with his maturity and keen perception in his teens. He must have had a driving passion for writing to do something that nobody else in his family circle had done, nor indeed his friends. But he was driven and therefore determined to make the best of his skills. And it eventually paid off too.
His first stab at a poetry competition won him second prize. The poem was called Euthanasia, a dark subject to say the least. He was 17. He didn't publicise his success to his friends and family. He kept his hobby secret, an unrequited love affair, which he knew would be vehemently rejected by his friends, as he explains: 'Growing up in a rough mining town I couldn't say to my friends that I sat in my room writing poetry, song lyrics for non -existent bands and short stories. They would have smacked me in the mouth and called me a poof.'
Rankin could have kept the whole thing a secret if he hadn't been so successful! Suddenly he won both a poetry competition and a short story competition and found himself mentioned in the local newspapers, where he finally had to admit his secret passion for words. It was a shock to both friends and family alike. However, this small-minded mentality wasn't shared by his English teacher, Mr Gillespie, who recognised his writing talents and encouraged him. Rankin pushed on, writing a story set in his own school, where a poster of Mick Jagger took on satanic powers and sent the children on a blood-curdling rampage (something he would later admit had more than a passing influence from Lord of the Flies). So Ian Rankin was a horror writer? Well, no, but the darkness in life has always interested him and, let us remind ourselves of the title of that award-winning poem, Euthanasia, and appreciate that death is not the end for Ian Rankin; it's simply the part where the analysis of the dead by the living begins!
It was partially Mr Gillespie's encouragement that inspired Rankin to go on to higher education. This was where tutors and academics began to advise him to great effect, a process that seemed to shape his literary growth throughout his education, especially at university, where there were more older, wiser teachers and writers to guide him.
Rankin always listened to the older literary voice (even those ghosts that whispered from bookshelves) and it stood him in good stead too. This isn't a new concept: authors such as Campbell Armstrong, James Herbert and Clive Barker experienced similar support; and it's good to see young talent being spotted by teachers at all levels, people who can detect the shining diamonds. It doesn't have to be subjects like English or art – sport and the sciences have their child stars too.
So Ian Rankin went to university at the age of 18 and pursued a literary career? Not quite. New Wave beckoned first! Around 1979/80 (aged 19/20) Rankin became a member of a punk rock band: 'I have always liked music but never had the patience – or skill – to learn an instrument. I used my poetry as song lyrics. We recorded five songs for a demo tape, but got nowhere. We only played six or seven times.
Music is a constant in Rankin's books and it seems logical that he would try his hand along the way. In fact, quite recently, Rankin has teamed up with Aidan Moffat and St Jude's Infirmary to write songs and he has also toured with Jackie Leven – albeit reciting a short story, not contributing song lyrics! He's also a self-confessed vinyl junkie, who constantly scans the record shops for more obscure albums to satiate his eclectic tastes.
His love of music and books settled him down to university life, but it was here that his personal life took a serious knock-back: his mother fell gravely ill. Her slow death made things very challenging for the young man, as he explained in a very tender interview with Andrew Preston for Night & Day: 'I was busy as a student during the week and then going home on a Friday night to see my mum. It was a terrible situation because I hated to go home and see her slowly deteriorate. One day I was sitting on her bed and she said she wished she was dead. How do you respond to that?'
Simply, Rankin responded by working his socks off and giving his mother – or her lasting memory – something to be proud of. He no longer had to be a closet academic: he was with like-minded people at university and his future path was clear. 'When I went to university in Edinburgh it became a great release. Suddenly there were groups of people writing. I went to pubs and I'd see a famous poet.' This thrilled the young man and inspired him to travel onwards; however, he did become slightly despondent at the lack of novelists in Edinburgh, as he stated: 'There were not so many famous novelists in Edinburgh, which was a little frustrating for me. There were some in Glasgow but not Edinburgh.'
This is a very important point. The urge to be a novelist was there as soon as he went to university and he was frustrated that having 'come out' as a writer, he didn't find any kindred spirits. There were other people writing and talking about books but no fellow would -be novelists. So he found one – a hero – somebody to emulate, focus on, aspire to. 'William Mcllvanney was my great influence. He wrote three crime novels but he was a serious literary writer. He had won the Whitbread Prize and I thought, If it's good enough for him then it's good enough for me.'
Again, Rankin's single-minded determination is clear. Already we are talking crime fiction here and he finds an academic crime writer to have as a major influence, to justify his passion for his chosen pursuit. No surprise then that he would study English Literature and English Language at Edinburgh University. All the eggs were going into one basket and his passion paid off when he graduated in 1982.
It wasn't all plain sailing from then on. It may look easy when laid down in a book where we all know the final outcome, but that period was tough for Rankin – not just the death of his mother and his studies, but the lack of money and the Edinburgh cold too. In his book Rebus's Scotland, he described the bitter mornings where he walked into the freezing Edinburgh wind to attend lectures and lessons. Initially he lived a 15-minute walk away at Marchmont; but the student life is a maverick one at the best of times and he moved around a lot from there.
Having little money and living in small flats gives students perception and independence and Rankin found time to think more about his hobby of writing. He moved into Edinburgh's New Town, but the weather was still miserable and he still needed to walk up the big hill into the Old Town to attend lectures every day.
'... that bitter and biting wind which whipped across the streets of Edinburgh in summer as well as winter.' Wolfman
These early years left a vivid impression on the young man. When, much later, a novelist and living in the relative warmth of the south of France (for six years), Rankin could still summon vivid images of Edinburgh's tough winters: they were ingrained in his mind. They were strong memories of his university days, of walking the characteristic streets, and those streets forged the writer we know today: a man passionate about location and that location is quite often – but not always – Edinburgh, his spiritual home, the place that shaped him into the person he was destined to be, a best-selling novelist. It was a place where he truly came of age or, more accurately, fulfilled his potential; a place he calls his hometown nowadays – and that is important to understand. Rankin will always tell you that he is from the Kingdom of Fife but his hometown is Edinburgh, the home of many of Scotland's literary greats. And he takes great comfort from their spiritual presence.
Excerpted from Ian Rankin and Inspector Rebus by Craig Cabell. Copyright © 2010 Craig Cabell. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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Meet the Author
Craig Cabell is the author of Dennis Wheatley: Churchill's Storyteller, Ian Fleming's Secret War, and Snipers: Profiles of the World's Deadliest Killers.
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