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
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

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.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore