Ian Rankin: Serial thriller

It's a bit of a jump, both culturally and geographically, from Auld Reekie to the Big Apple. Yet Edinburgh-based crime writer Ian Rankin has been offered one of the highest accolades Manhattan can bestow - the first non-American to have a story serialised in the 'New York Times'

It is a stunning piece of news that would undoubtedly have persuaded Detective John Rebus to order another double whisky.

Ian Rankin, one of the leading exponents of what has been called "Tartan Noir" and the creator of the hard-living, hard-drinking Rebus, is to become the first non-American author to have a specially commissioned work serialised by The New York Times.

It is a signal honour for an author who started the hard way, working as a swineherd and a grapepicker to finance his literary studies. And it is also a crowning moment for the literary genre of which he is the master.

James Ellroy, who coined the phrase 'Tartan Noir', has already acknowledged Rankin's singular merits. Now the notoriously fastidious and demanding readers of America's most prestigious newspaper will get a chance to do the same.

Already a popular novelist among literary crime fans across the USA and throughout the world, Rankin, who is credited with being one of the top 10 bestselling fiction writers in Britain, now looks set to be on the verge of promotion into the super-league of American authors.

The 46-year-old, who lives in Edinburgh with his wife Miranda and two sons, Jack, 14, and Kit, 12, was approached by the renowned newspaper at the end of last year with the specific request for a new story set in Edinburgh.

It is rare for any author to be commissioned by the paper to specifically create an entire novel for serialisation and the honour has not been lost on the writer who published his first Rebus novel 20 years ago this year.

"Since previous "serial providers" have included Patricia Cornwell, Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard and Michael Chabon, the offer was hard to turn down," said a delighted Rankin.

The new story, which is expected to run in the newspaper every Sunday for 14 weeks from April, will not feature Rebus.

Nonetheless, NYT readers will be introduced to a number of renowned Edinburgh landmarks already familiar to fans of the hard-bitten detective. The plot, apparently, will revolve around an audacious art heist.

The Rebus novels, of which there are now 19 associated titles, have become an important part of Edinburgh's literary landscape in the past two decades with thousands of visitors coming from all over the world to see the sites associated with the surly sleuth.

Landmarks such as St Leonard's Police Station, Arden Street, the Oxford Bar in Young Street have all found fame, and in some cases earned a small fortune, cashing in on the fame of books that are now published in 29 languages. The novels have also been made into a string of popular television programmes starring first John Hanna and then Ken Stott as the main character.

"This won't be about Rebus," said Rankin. "It will have a thriller element but will be lighter in tone. When I think what people want to read on a Sunday morning, they don't want anything too heavy. It will be a chance to write something lighter about Edinburgh".

The call from The New York Times came out of the blue. Rankin said he spent most of January writing about 2,500 words every day in an attempt to get the work completed on time.

"It was quite intense but not bad at all," he said. "I had the idea and I just ran with it really."

Rankin's books are estimated to account for at least 10 per cent of all UK crime fiction sales. As the leading exponent of Tartan Noir, which covers Scottish detective fiction over the past 30 years by writers such as Christopher Brookmyre, Val McDermid and Denise Mina, the serialisation is expected to provide Rankin with invaluable exposure.

By happy coincidence, he is about to make a string of public appearances in the United States to promote his latest Rebus novel, The Naming of the Dead.

"The Tartan Noir thing is already pretty big over here and Ian Rankin is definitely one of the most well respected of that set," said Elisabeth Vincentelli, Time Out New York's arts & entertainment editor, who claimed the kudos of being commissioned by The New York Times was a big boost for his US profile.

"Crime books from Scotland are becoming more and more popular," she added.

Ironically, Rankin has previously admitted much of the motivation for his stories and his most famous creation comes from his early interest as a youngster in American crime novels.

Indeed, the first name of John Rebus is said to have been inspired by the 1970s books on John Shaft, the gun-toting black private eye from New York, written by Ernest Tidyman.

Unable to get into see the film of the same name starring Richard Roundtree, the young Rankin bought the book and became hooked on the American detective stories.

However, despite his enthusiasm for the genre, Rankin, who has broken Irvine Welsh and Iain Banks' records to have six titles in the Scottish top 10 bestsellers list simultaneously, claims he became a crime writer by accident.

Following in what he thought were the literary footsteps of the likes of James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson, Rankin, who has also wrote three thrillers under the pseudonym "Jack Harvey" during his early career, has always maintained that he never set out to write crime fiction. In fact, he didn't realise that was what he was doing.

For a man who says he used to go into bookstores and remove copies of his work from the crime shelves and put them in the Scottish Literature section, he has come a long way since he first began dreaming about a writing career.

Born in April 1960, in a small mining town of Cardenden, Fife, Rankin wrote and drew his own comic books, before going on to Edinburgh University, where he achieved a first class degree in American Literature.

After graduation, he worked in a series of jobs, including grapepicker, swineherd, taxman, alcohol researcher, hi-fi journalist and even as a singer with a short-lived punk band called The Dancing Pigs.

It was while struggling with a PhD on the Scottish novel and preparing to be a professor of English literature that he began writing his own book, The Flood. Soon the thesis on Muriel Spark was taking a back seat.

His second book, Knots & Crosses, was published the following year in 1987. Soon, his idea for a crime novel involving a bitter and slight dysfunctional detective with a compellingly flawed character took off and spawned an industry of its own.

Part of his appeal is that Rankin rarely describes his characters at length but rather leaves it to the reader's imagination to put a face and voice to individuals - a tactic that has worked especially well with Rebus as his personality has emerged over the years.

While Rankin has amassed a wealth of personal honours over the years, his creation has been equally prized. There are now tourist walks, a whisky and a beer named after Rebus.

For years, the cobbled streets and narrow blood-soaked streets of Edinburgh have been associated with the grave-robbers, body-snatchers and serial killers of history but now more and more tourists queue up to visit the real-life haunts of Rankin's fictional character.

And the prizes have kept coming. Rankin's accolades include being elected as a Hawthornden Fellow and winner of the Chandler-Fulbright Award; two Crime Writers' Association (CWA) Dagger prizes for short stories; the CWA Macallan Gold Dagger for Fiction; the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award; the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger to mark a lifetime's achievement in crime writing; honorary doctorates from the Universities of Abertay Dundee, St Andrews and Hull; culminating in an OBE in the 2002 Golden Jubilee Queen's Birthday Honours List for services to literature.

Recently however, at an age 10 years younger than his hero, Rankin has admitted that he faces a dilemma.

In the normal course of events, Rebus should be about to retire from the police which means that unless he can be brought out of retirement in some way for further adventures, the Rebus stories could come to an end.

Rankin has already said the next novel, due to be published next autumn, will be Rebus' last as a serving policeman

However, now that Rankin looks set for a renewed surge of interest from the American book market after the call from The New York Times it looks as though demand for Rankin's gritty style of storytelling is going to be even greater than before.

Already, there have been hints and suggestions that the Rebus character will appear in some spinoff story in the future. There is talk a story revolving around his current side-kick Siobhan re-opening an old case that would require Rebus' help.

As for Rankin's next move however, read all about it in The New York Times.

The stars of Tartan Noir

* WILLIAM MCILVANNEY

Son of a Kilmarnock miner, the former English teacher has been cited by Ian Rankin as one of his foremost influences. McIlvanney's most acclaimed novels, such as Laidlaw, depict the gritty and often violent reality for the hard men and women of 1970s Glasgow.

* CHRISTOPHER BROOKMYRE

Creator of the investigative journalist Jack Parlabane whose first appearance in the 1996 novel Quite Ugly One Morning - a satire of Tory NHS reforms - picked up the First Blood award. Brookmyre is acclaimed in equal measure for his grit, wit and wildly profane dialogue.

* VAL MCDERMID

Kirkcaldy-born former newspaper journalist and creator of three successful series of books, the Lindsay Gordon Mysteries, Kate Brannigan and in 1997 the Tony Hill & Carol Jordan series for which she won the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger for best crime novel with Mermaids Singing.

* DENISE MINA

Former PhD student who used her grant money to write Garnethill, the first in a trilogy of crime novels set in Glasgow, for which she won the Crime Writers' Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger. Mina drew on her academic studies to examine the tortured world of sexual abuse victims.

* LOUISE WELSH

The bestselling author of The Cutting Room, an examination of attitudes to pornography, which won her a nomination for an Orange Prize as well as a Creasey Dagger and Saltire First Book Award. Her third novel, The Bullet Trick, is the story of a magician set in Glasgow and Berlin.

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