Ian Rankin: The king of tartan noir

Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels have won him legions of fans and a place on the tourist trail. He tells Lesley Mcdowell why crime fiction matters
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The Independent Culture

Ian Rankin, the "king of tartan noir", is living up to the image. Leather-jacketed and windswept, he is perched on a rock on Arthur's Seat, on the kind of grey, misty day that Edinburgh does best, submitting with a little reluctance to the photographer's demands. Fast-forward half an hour, and we are in a cosy French restaurant in the city's posh Morningside area, having a right old gab. No mystery here; one of the UK's biggest-selling crime writers is a pretty happy guy.

Ian Rankin, the "king of tartan noir", is living up to the image. Leather-jacketed and windswept, he is perched on a rock on Arthur's Seat, on the kind of grey, misty day that Edinburgh does best, submitting with a little reluctance to the photographer's demands. Fast-forward half an hour, and we are in a cosy French restaurant in the city's posh Morningside area, having a right old gab. No mystery here; one of the UK's biggest-selling crime writers is a pretty happy guy.

And so he should be. Thanks to the phenomenal success of his detective creation, Inspector Rebus, who first appeared 17 years ago and who enjoyed TV success with John Hannah in the starring role, Rankin can enjoy the fruits of a long and hard-won labour. He has a new house, not far from where Alexander McCall Smith, J K Rowling and Robin Cook like to reside when in town; he is the holder of numerous crime-writing awards, as well as an honorary doctorate and an OBE; and he tells me that his youngest son, who is severely disabled, has taken up horse-riding, which has hugely helped his condition.

Writers don't often want to talk about personal things, so Rankin's pretty open and affable nature comes as something of a surprise, not least because on the telephone or on Newsnight Review, where he makes regular appearances, he can come across as a little abrasive, a little won't-suffer-fools-gladly in a Scottish East Coast, down-to-earth kind of way. But in person he's one of the most approachable writers you're likely to meet. He still looks like the twentysomething postgraduate student he once was, when he began a PhD on the novels of Muriel Spark: looks which quite belie his 44 years. And he still likes to drink in the Oxford Bar near Princes Street, immortalised now as Rebus's favourite watering-hole. More than that, he's the kind of writer whose ego doesn't stop him attending other writers' events: at the recent Edinburgh Book Festival, he could be glimpsed at several author sessions and when Spark arrived, he happily queued up along with everyone else for her to sign his copy of one of her books.

Perhaps it's a mark of reaching a certain career point, or certain time of life, but he also insists that his latest Rebus novel, Fleshmarket Close (Orion, £17.99), is one of the most personal, too. Some would dispute that - Rankin is probably the only author to vie with Ruth Rendell for the top spot when it comes to merging topical issues with a great whodunit - and this latest case involves the killing of an asylum-seeker, the problem of racial hatred, lawless housing schemes as well as justice for victims and a little sexual politics for good measure.

"I think my books look at what potentially could happen," he says when I ask about the social-realist slant of his crime fiction. "We haven't yet had an asylum- seeker killed in Edinburgh, but it could happen; there have been plenty of racist attacks. Part of the scheme of the book is to look at the question, who are the Scots? What makes the Scots what they are, culturally, psychologically, economically, and so on?"

We swerve back to the personal, albeit on a national scale. Questions of national identity clearly interest Rankin, who left Scotland for London at the age of 26, where he and his wife lived for four years before heading for France. He had started the Rebus series by then, but his sales were poor and he faced the possibility of being dropped by his publishers. "I had moments of panic all the time," he says, looking so impossibly calm and relaxed now I can only doubt him, but he assures me it's true. "I still do have moments of panic - you're only as good as your last book. I always panic that it's going to come crashing down around my ears. When we lived in France, I started literally having panic attacks. I'd gone from being a student and writing as a hobby, then working in London as a journalist and a secretary which helped pay the mortgage, to France where my wife didn't have a job and the only income was from my writing. The pressure was horrendous; I wasn't earning that much for the books and that was all we had. I used to wake up in the middle of the night, screaming, sweating and palpitating, I had to breathe into brown paper bags just to get my heart-rate down. I'd go driving in the middle of the night, screaming and shouting."

It's hard to imagine the creator of the cynical but moral Rebus having panic attacks - in crime fiction, more than in any other kind perhaps, there is a push in us to see a symbiotic relationship between creator and creation. Rankin acknowledges this, laughing that Rebus Walking Tours in Edinburgh regularly bring tourists to the Oxford Bar ("they're disappointed when it's me in having a pint - I think they want to see Rebus") but also pointing out to me, on our journey to Arthur's Seat, where Rebus's old police station used to be, where his flat is, where he's based now.

Rebus has made Rankin a recognisable Edinburgh fixture himself, and that can be a problem. A recent murder took place quite near to where Rankin lives and a journalist rang him up to tell him about it. "I went round to take a look and it was the worst thing I could have done. I ended up on the front page of The Sun with 'Ghoulish Author Visits Murder Scene', up there with Peter Andre. I started getting letters from people, saying this is a real guy, this really happened, he's probably got family. I know you have to be really careful."

Is there any case he thinks can't be used? "The obvious example in Scotland is Lockerbie. Yes, I think you could use it but you have to be careful." Does that mean, cut the sensationalist element? "I'm guilty of shying away from things a lot of the time - if guilty is the right word. A lot of the time, there's no gratuitous description of violence in my books; there's actually very little violence or murder at all, it's the aftermath of the murder I use, when the crime's been committed. I don't think you need that, the reader puts it in. I do find it interesting though, how many women writers come up with these incredibly violent books.... If you read these books and nothing but that, you'd think the world was full of serial killers stalking women with this incredibly detailed plan of how they were going to lay the body out, put feathers in them and all that. It's just nonsense."

We come back to the importance of social realism in his books. "I'm very interested in the effect crime has on the community around it," he says, "not so much the mechanics of the whodunit. I do think of crime novels as novels about society - if I was going to visit a foreign country, and I wanted to get a picture of what was going on, I'd read their crime writers. The last few Booker prize lists have been dominated by historical novels and I think the English novel does seem to be looking backwards a lot, like it was afraid of the present or the future."

We have touched on an old bugbear of Rankin's: the failure of literary prize panels to recognise crime fiction as a serious contender. He takes up the theme once more. "Literary critics still have that knee-jerk reaction that the crime novel looks pre-planned, geometric, everything's worked out, everything's tied up at the end," he argues. "But that's an old-fashioned thing, I like open endings, I leave mine as open as possible. The crime novel is supposed to be structured but it has a mind of its own, and that's why it often attracts literary writers too, like Martin Amis or Julian Barnes. Plenty of them are intrigued by the form."

It's not enough to spoil Rankin's mood. He's in the happy position now of no longer having to produce a book a year ("It's always seemed strange to me that genre fiction's supposed to be a book a year - nobody expects Salman Rushdie to do a book a year"), which will give him time, he says, to do more research, more plotting, more thinking. Then he laughs. "It's still better than working. I feel guilty when I come to the café in the morning after taking the kids to school, because I have to walk past Alexander McCall Smith's house and he's always working! He's giving us writers a bad name." There's little that could give Ian Rankin a bad name, as those who will buy Fleshmarket Close in their hundreds and thousands would surely testify.

Biography: Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin was born in Cardenden, Fife, in 1960 and graduated from Edinburgh University, before spending three years on an unfinished PhD on Muriel Spark, during which time he wrote the first of his Rebus novels. He married and moved to London in 1986, spending four years there before moving to France. He returned to Scotland in 1996 and is now based in Edinburgh, sharing his home with his two young sons, Jack and Kit. His first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, was published in 1987 while he was living in London; this latest novel, Fleshmarket Close (Orion), is 18th in the series. The Rebus books are now translated into 22 languages. Ian Rankin has worked variously as a grape-picker, hi-fi journalist and punk musician. He has has won the Macallan Gold Dagger award for fiction, the Edgar award and the CWA Short Story Dagger award, and was recently elected alumnus of the year of Edinburgh University.