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