Ian Rankin: Dark and dangerous? It's time to tell a new story

Inspector Rebus was said to be a repository for the more sinister side of his creator – yet, as he approaches 50, Scotland's most famous crime writer has had counselling and gone teetotal. But can he really be thinking about jacking it all in 'before the books get bad'? Katy Guest meets Ian Rankin

When I leave Ian Rankin after our meeting in Edinburgh on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, he is standing under a tree with our photographer beside the public toilets in Bruntsfield Park. He has paid for our drinks, offered to call me a cab and is now posing patiently as he's snapped and manhandled and shuffled around.

"He'll probably have me over by the bins," he'd laughed, as the photographer arrived. "They always want [to photograph] me in dark alleys. It's that thing about the image again. There was one time when they wanted a photo of me in my hotel room and they laid some crime scene tape in the shape of a body and made me lie in it. Then they took the photographs, and then we had to rush off to do something and then of course the cleaner came in..."

Issues about image, and about being mistaken for a character in one of his own crime novels, come up a lot in conversation with Ian Rankin. We have met in a café in his adopted home town to discuss his brand new novel, The Complaints. Set in the police department that investigates other cops, it is his second book since he pensioned off Rebus, and he knows that it risks upsetting die-hard fans of his legendary Edinburgh detective. As we talk, he is approached by a friendly lady in a bright red mac. "If you're writing another book, please can we have Rebus back in it?" she pleads. "I couldn't get to grips with that last one – what was it called?"

"Doors Open," he replies, gallantly. "But don't make your mind up just yet. I've got a new book out in September. It's got an Edinburgh cop in it ..."

"Hmm," she squints. "Is he as good?"

"I think so. Wait and see."

The last time I met Rankin was to talk about Doors Open, a daring story about an art-world heist that was a considerable departure from his Inspector Rebus crime thrillers. A year ago, he seemed remarkably sanguine about saying goodbye to the fictional alter ego who made his name and his fortune as a writer. "Crime writers," he explained, "are usually very well-balanced, approachable people, because we channel all our crap on to the page. In the crime-writing community we joke about romantic fiction writers and how they're all evil, backstabbing bitches because they don't have that outlet ..."

But since we last met, Rankin's outlets have slightly changed. Rebus, he used to say, was a sort of repository for the dark side of Ian Rankin. Into Rebus's mouth he would put the cynicism and misanthropy that he just didn't feel as a man. There were some similarities: Rebus, like Rankin, was an almost anorackish fan of music. Rebus, like Rankin, hung out in Edinburgh's Oxford Bar. (The author has become so much a mascot for the real-life pub that in his new book he made the local boozer fictional, for fear of seeming to support the opposition.) Like Rankin, Rebus also liked – rather too much – to drink. But recently, that has changed.

This summer, Rankin admitted in a Scottish newspaper that he has had professional help with his drinking after an incident at last year's British Book Awards made him realise that it was out of hand. The episode, he says now, is one that he not only doesn't want to talk about, but doesn't even want to think about. But at the time he made a public apology to his wife and promised to get his relationship with alcohol under control.

Rebus fans will be surprised to find that the hero of The Complaints, Malcolm Fox, is teetotal – if reluctantly. So it's funny to hear Rankin arrive at a bar and order a spicy tomato juice – "Yes, I mean a Bloody Mary without the vodka" – and sigh wistfully, exactly as his character does in the book. "I do drink occasionally, socially," he explains. "When I know that it's safe to drink."

For the first time in his life, Rankin has talked to... "I don't know what you would call them. A counsellor? A counsellor." He talked a lot with her about the death of his mother in Cardenden in Fife, when he was 18 and had only just started at Edinburgh University. But a lot of his problems, he believes, "all boiled down to this sort of thing about the image. A lot of writers, especially crime writers, have an image that we think we're trying to keep up with. You've got to be seen as dark and slightly dangerous. But I'm not like that and I've realised that I don't need to put that on. People will buy the books whether they see a photo of you dressed in black or not. You know?"

It must be daunting, I say, for a writer who has used his inner darkness creatively to lose that darkness and still try to write. "Oh, I don't know," he laughs. "I'm one of these people who read a lot of author biographies, and you're always trying to read them into the work. But I don't see that much with [my] books... I mean, I like people who read books as books." Later, I ask him about brothers in his writing; so many of his heroes, such as Rebus with Cafferty, or Fox with his colleague Jamie Breck, have a nemesis figure who's also like a brother. "I think it was Dr Raj Persaud," he replies, "who asked me if I have a brother. I said, 'No. Well, I had a brother who died before I was born.' And he said, 'I think that's what you've done with Rebus: you've put the missing brother on him.' I'm not sure I buy into that. But it was an interesting thesis."

Referring to conversations with his famous friends is also something that Rankin does a lot. His neighbours Sandy and Jo – Alexander McCall Smith and J K Rowling – often drop round for coffee in Edinburgh's real-life "crime writing community". As we're talking, he waves through the window to Alistair Darling's wife. He has a bizarre correspondence with Pete Townshend, who emails him from a withheld address to thank him for using The Who's music in his novels. Rankin writes more music into his books in the hope of receiving another message. And then there are his imaginary friends.

Writers, he says, are just people who refuse to stop playing with dolls when they grow up. They are people who look out of the window over the shoulder of their newspaper interviewer because "a story could walk by at any moment". They are people whose teenage son comes home from his new job at a charity shop and relates a story about unpacking a bag of books and finding a razor blade used as a bookmark.

"I'll get a story out of that – there's no doubt about it," he says. "That detail will stick in my mind, and somewhere down the line there will be something sort of sinister but really strange with it that I need and I'll think, 'Oh, somebody can put a razor blade in a book'..." (And they are also people who can laugh when their son comes home from work and says, "There's an awful lot of your books for sale in there, Dad.")

Occasionally, Rankin's famous friends and his imaginary ones converge. Such as the time when he agreed to write into his novel a real person who had donated a large sum at a charity auction for the privilege. The man, whose name was Peacock Johnson, duly turned up in A Question of Blood – but when Rankin tried to make contact again he had disappeared. A bit of Rebus-style investigation revealed that Peacock Johnson is the alter ego of the bass player of Belle and Sebastian, and that he had subsequently written his own novel in which Rankin turns up as a character who has written about Peacock in a book. "I came across as a bit of a wimp," Rankin complains. "But it was good. It was also, in current parlance, a mindfuck. You think, 'Hang on, if he's not real, and I am real, maybe he's real and I'm not real...'"

Of all the things that Rankin says, the most shocking is that he is looking forward to retirement. "I'm contractually obliged to write one more book," he says. He turns 50 next year, and reckons he'll jack it in and go travelling. "I want to stop writing before the books get bad. My publishers are, well, sanguine. They were just delighted when I delivered The Complaints because the deal was it could have been any kind of book. It was actually going to be a mixture of misery-memoir and cookbook called 'Cooking with Onions'."

He laughs, but somehow you never know what Ian Rankin might do next. As a crime writer, lyricist, graphic novelist and director of his own photoshoots, he seems to have cornered almost every market. Those fans who are absolutely stuck on Inspector Rebus might never be happy with any alternatives. But I, for one, look forward to his foray into misery lit.

Life of crime

28 April 1960 Born Cardenden, Fife. Rankin tried his hand at being a grape-picker, swineherd, taxman, college secretary, alcohol researcher, punk musician and journalist before taking up writing.

1986 The Flood, Rankin's first novel, is published.

1987 Knots and Crosses, the first Inspector Rebus novel, appears.

1993 Witch Hunt published, the first of the three novels written under the pseudonym Jack Harvey after Rankin moved to the Dordogne in rural France with his wife Miranda. His agent warned that publishers would not be keen on having two new books by the same author on their shelves in the same year, so he came up with the alias. The series was a culmination of Rankin's non-Rebus ideas.

1997 Wins the Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger for Black and Blue, the eighth Rebus novel.

2002 Gets OBE in Queen's Birthday Honours List.

2004 Wins an Edgar, the prestigious US mystery writers award, for Resurrection Men, the 13th Inspector Rebus novel.

2005 Awarded the CWA's Diamond Dagger, the lifetime achievement award.

2007 Exit Music, the 17th and final Rebus novel, published.

2008 Wins the ITV3 Crime Thriller Award for Author of the Year, for Exit Music.

2009 Dark Entries, a graphic novel featuring the occult detective John Constantine, is published.

Has Rankin come up with the goods?

"Nobody likes the Complaints" begins the blurb on Ian Rankin's latest novel. "They're the cops who investigate other cops." With bent policemen, crooked property developers and layer upon layer of intrigue, this could be the book that persuades Rebus fans that Rankin is still at the top of his game.

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