Top British crime writer finds research can be risky
The mystery stacks are filled with the works of former trial lawyers, prosecutors, judges, detectives, even beat cops whose procedural knowledge and behind-the-scenes experience bring a heightened realism to their fiction.
But Ian Rankin, whose Inspector Rebus novels are the number-one selling mysteries in Great Britain, may be the only crime novelist who began his career as a murder suspect.
It was all a misunderstanding, of course, the very sort of stumbling-toward-stardom happenstance that peppers the engaging Scottish writer's rather checkered job history. Before we get to his previous failed careers as a punk rocker, grape picker, swineherd, stereo reviewer and "alcohol researcher," what's all this about a murder rap?
Rankin answers this and other questions by phone from his home in Edinburgh, where he's preparing to embark on a 15-city U.S. book tour to promote his 16th Rebus novel, The Question of Blood.
The year was 1984. Rankin, then an unsavory-looking 24-year-old, was working toward his doctorate at the University of Edinburgh. Officially, he was crafting a thesis on post-modernism and the Scottish novel; in reality, he was framing John Rebus' debut, Knots & Crosses. "I got an idea for a book about a cop but I didn't read crime fiction at that time, which is very unusual among crime writers, not to come to it as a fan of the genre. And I didn't know any cops. So I wrote to the top police officer in Edinburgh and explained that I was writing this police novel and could he help me," Rankin recalls.
"I was dispatched to this police station in Edinburgh, and I looked like a tramp. They said, you're writing a book? They could barely believe it. They asked me what the plot was, and it happened to be very close to a case they were working on in real life. They thought that I was like John Doe in Seven or something; that I was coming into the police station and giving myself up to play games with them."
Rankin was escorted to the inquiry room and given the third degree. "I was about the only suspect they had in those days. It eventually became a murder case involving seven victims. That's taking research a bit too far, really. For a few years after that, I didn't go near the police, fearing the same thing would happen again."
Despite the awkward introduction, Rankin eventually wrote his way into the hearts of Scottish law enforcement officials. Several inspectors have become friends, giving the author access to the realistic procedural detail for which his books are rightly admired.
In The Question of Blood, Inspector Rebus is summoned to a sleepy Scottish coastal town where a former soldier has gunned down two students and injured a third at a posh private school before taking his own life. Rebus has a personal stake in the Columbine-like tragedy: one of the victims is his cousin.
Unfortunately, the good inspector is temporarily without the use of his hands, which are heavily bandaged after a scalding incident. And because his unusual injury coincided a little too closely with the house-fire death of a lowlife who has been stalking his sidekick, Siobhan Clarke, Rebus is once again on suspension.
The Question of Blood is laced with British musical references, not surprising considering that a group of young Goths (black-clad heavy metal fans) ultimately hold the key to the school shootings. It's an ongoing feature of the series that has earned Rankin a rock-star following.
"The music is a good shorthand way to delineate character," Rankin says. "If you want to tell the reader a lot about a character in a small space, just tell them what their musical taste is. You'll get their age, their background, whether they're gregarious or a loner."
It was rock music that first inspired Rankin, though the prospect of participating in it was remote while he was growing up in a small coal-mining town north of Edinburgh. When punk exploded, the 18-year-old Rankin assembled a group called the Dancing Pigs that performed around Edinburgh in 1978-79. "We weren't very good," he chuckles. "I was on vocals; singing would be putting it too strongly."
He followed that with a stint as a grape-picking swineherd in France. "We tramped the grapes the old-fashioned way in these huge wooden barrels and then I was supposed to feed all the bits of skin and pips and stuff to the pigs. But being a lazy kind of guy, I left it for a few days and the stuff started fermenting, so by the time I fed it to them it was alcoholic and they got incredibly drunk and one of them actually died of alcohol poisoning. So that was the end of my career as a swineherd. Perhaps the Dancing Pigs were a bit prescient."
Rankin subsequently worked as editor of Hi-Fi magazine "until I had an absolute state-of-the-art hi-fi system, at which point I promptly resigned, having gotten all of these freebies."
At 43, Rankin outsells Stephen King in the U.K., his face adorns London's red double-decker buses and his brooding inspector now has a BBC television series of his own. In the course of 16 novels, he has depicted Edinburgh in such vivid detail that out-of-towners can now take a two-hour walking tour of Rebus' various haunts, including the Oxford Bar, where Rankin still imbibes.
But Rankin warns that the clock is ticking on his desultory detective. "Rebus works in real time. In book one, he is 40 and now we're up to book 16 and he's 55, and you've got to retire at 60, so I've got a maximum of five more books left if I do a book a year. Then we'll have a parting of the ways and Siobhan might become the main character. I honestly don't know because I never think more than one book ahead. There is no game plan."
Jay MacDonald is a writer in Oxford, Mississippi.