Ian Rankin's Rebus novels: Detectives worth watching

His Rebus novels have sold in their millions – now Ian Rankin is out to prove that his crime drama can work in the theatre and with a female sleuth. By David Pollock

Ian Rankin has death on his mind. It's not such an unusual state for the Edinburgh-based, internationally best-selling author of 19 Inspector Rebus novels and counting, but it's the passing of those close to home which is of concern right now – particularly the sudden departures of the folk singer Jackie Leven in 2011 and author Iain Banks earlier this year, both friends of his. “It's definitely been niggling at the back of my mind,” he says of their passing. “Banksy was what, 59 when he died? Five, six years older than me. It just knocked me for six. And now Seamus Heaney has died. My wife's dad gave him his first job.”

Events have forced him to question his own mortality, he says – and have partly contributed to the break he'll take from his tradition of writing a novel a year in 2014. As well as that, he's been facing an increasing scarcity of ideas – and he's also out of contract with his publisher for the first time since 1987, and wants to enjoy the lack of deadlines. Before that happens, though, he has to deal with the launch of the latest Rebus book, Saints of the Shadow Bible (a quote from Leven's song “One Man, One Guitar”) in November; and as we speak, he's enjoying lunch on a break from rehearsing his first stage play, Dark Road, in the studio space across from Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre.

“I know Mark (Thomson, Lyceum artistic director and co-writer and director of Dark Road) because I come to the theatre a lot and we occasionally meet for a coffee,” says Rankin of this latest project's genesis. “He likes his crime fiction, and one day he pointed out that contemporary police drama is incredibly popular as a medium, but we never see it on stage. Did I think, he asked, it's because it can't be done? I thought about it and came up with two or three scenarios for him – and he liked this one because it's about a set of relationships, it's not just a whodunit. In fact, it's a kind of did-he-do-it?”

In a radical departure from Rebus's irascible, anti-authority male, Dark Road's lead is Chief Superintendent Isobel McArthur (Maureen Beattie, right), whose approaching retirement leads her to reinvestigate the conviction of serial killer Alfred Chalmers 25 years ago – a potential miscarriage of justice which she may have been unwittingly involved in, even as her troubled daughter Alexandra has struck up a relationship with the man. “It's still contemporary Edinburgh, it's still about the police, there are mysteries that will be unravelled by the end,” says Rankin. “The tension, the drama, the violence, all that's true to the spirit of the books. But it's much more internalised here.”

The process, he says, is entirely new to him, with Dark Road being devised and storyboarded by Rankin and then worked up into a full script by Thomson, before taken to workshop with the actors. “As a novelist, you're much more like God,” he says. “When I wrote the words down, I thought of the way they'd be said inside my head, not of all the different inflections that an actor would be able to give, all the nuances they can put across. It might look okay on the page, but does it come out of their mouth sounding authentic? And does the character become slippier if you change just one word or one action?”

While the world of theatre is alien to Rankin, he's on familiar ground with the new novel. Another tale of an old case being reopened, one in which Rebus might have had some unsavoury involvement, it sees the protagonist back on the force after an attempted retirement, his old junior Siobhan Clarke now enjoying being his superior, and recent addition to the cast, Malcolm Fox, out of the internal affairs department (“because as I found out after I invented him,” says Rankin, “you only get three to five years as an internal affairs cop”) and back amongst a rank and file who don't trust him. There's also a plot which is tied into the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, with the murder of a justice minister who represents the Yes campaign, and the reappearance of a disgraced ex-colleague of Rebus's who is now a successful businessman and a representative of the No campaign.

“May you live in interesting times, eh?” he laughs at the wealth of political intrigue which has opened up to an author documenting Scotland's capital city over the last three decades. “When I first came here as a student [from the mining town of Cardenden, across the Firth of Forth in Fife] in 1978, you were hard-pressed to find any Edinburgh writers,” he says. “It was like you were living in a museum. You arrived at Waverley station, named after a novel, and the first thing you saw was the Scott Monument. It was like writing was a thing that happened in the past. At that time this was still a provincial town; it didn't have a Parliament and the devolution debate had come and gone.”

On the direction Scotland will take while he's in exile, Rankin seems as uncertain as the next voter. “I think it's completely up in the air,” he says. “I know all the polls say it will be a no vote, but that can change. If the right wing gets more right wing in England, if Scotland do really well in a football match, who knows? Independence couldn't make me feel any more Scottish than I already feel, and I'm not sure I trust the politicians up here any more than I trust any politician to be idealists. I think most people's hearts have been persuaded, but the heads haven't yet – and yet it shouldn't be about economics. If you want independence you should want independence, even if you're going to be as poor as Cuba. I like the fact that the SNP have stirred things up, though. All that lazy Labour/Conservative stuff has had to go.”

Whatever happens, Rebus will surely be waiting to pass judgement in his 20th outing on the other side. “My wife wants to do some foreign travel,” says Rankin, lunch drawing to an end, “and I want to sit in as many pubs as possible, reading the paper and doing the crossword. We'll make sure we both get what we want. And if I have a great idea for a book, there's nothing to stop me writing it.”

'Dark Road', Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (0131 248 4848) to 19 October. 'Saints of the Shadow Bible' is published on 7 November

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...