Ian Rankin interview: The return of Rebus and examining murder in Sheffield - ‘It’s still the most shocking crime imaginable’

Ian Rankin.
Ian Rankin.

"Crime fiction comes back to a very central question," says bestselling author Ian Rankin, who's found himself mulling over readers' endless fascination with killings and other grisly wrongdoings. "Why do human beings keep doing terrible things to one another?"

It's an easy one to ask, but difficult to answer - there are 'myriad reasons' why people break the law, he says, but murder sits in its own grim category.

Ian Rankin.

Ian Rankin.

"It is the taking away of something unique and irreplaceable from the world. Which is why it's still the most shocking crime imaginable. If somebody steals stuff from your house you can replace it - but if you take a life that's not coming back, in any shape or form."

Rankin, the creator of curmudgeonly detective John Rebus, will be exploring this theme in Sheffield later this month when he appears with a panel of experts such as pathologists and police officers for Investigating Murder - an event that promises to patrol the 'boundaries between fact and fiction', revealing what really happens in a homicide inquiry. Inspired by a similar celebration held in Scotland last year for his character's 30th anniversary,  it's a fresh take on the usual Q&A and book signing; Rankin's 22nd Rebus novel, In a House of Lies, is published this Thursday.

"It seems to me fans of crime fiction are absolutely fascinated by the real processes," he reasons, talking breezily on the phone from his home in Edinburgh, the city Rebus shares as his fictional patch. "A novel has to cut through all the boring stuff that happens in a criminal inquiry. I give the reader a sense there's a lot going on - trawling through files, looking at CCTV, paperwork, interviews that take you no further forward. That's happening somewhere, but not on the page. We focus on a small set of characters as they push the story forward. That means leaving a lot out."

Not that Rankin has a particularly cosy relationship with the police: he doesn't get 'hugely close', he says. "I don't want the books to become PR exercises for the police. I still want to feel free to write about bent cops. I've got a small network of people I can call on if I need information, and they're always really helpful, because they want novelists to get the details right. It's not in anybody's interests to get the details wrong. They're usually very happy for me to pick their brains. I still make mistakes, every book's probably got a mistake in it somewhere. But I do my best."

Ian Rankin, with his wife Miranda Harvey in 2003, after receiving an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree at Edinburgh University.

Ian Rankin, with his wife Miranda Harvey in 2003, after receiving an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree at Edinburgh University.

The man hailed as the 'King of Tartan Noir', whose thrillers account for a sizeable chunk of crime fiction sales in the UK, is being modest. Rankin's novels have shifted millions of copies and have been translated into 36 languages, while Rebus became a successful television series, first starring John Hannah and then Ken Stott. Another TV adaptation is on the way and a stage production of a brand new Rebus tale has just begun a national tour.

Nevertheless, Rankin - who has denied being worth £25 million, suggesting the true figure is nearer half that sum - says he feels 'nervous' as In a House of Lies hits the shops. "When it's published suddenly you get a flood of people who've read it and of course now, thanks to social media, they can immediately let you know what they think."

The days of receiving sackfuls of letters are long gone, though people from across the globe still send post to him care of The Oxford Bar, the pub in Edinburgh where Rebus drinks in the books and the author goes in real life. 

He usually writes quickly, and the new novel was no exception. "I got the idea for it in January this year, and started it at the beginning of February, and it just flew. So by the beginning of June I had something I was reasonably happy with, gave it a polish and sent it to the publisher. They asked for a bit more polish and here we are."

The 'story of corruption and consequences' finds Rebus facing an interesting predicament. Now retired, and struggling with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease after years of smoking, drinking, eating fried food and dodging exercise, he finds himself drawn into a cold case after skeletal remains found in a rusted car in the East Lothian woods are identified as a private investigator who went missing more than a decade earlier. As the chapters go by, a side of Rebus emerges that he would prefer to keep in the past.

"Although it's been a long-running series each one is different because the characters, especially the main character of Rebus, change between books. He's retired now, he's no longer a serving police officer, so that keeps me on my toes. I've got think how I can inveigle him into a police inquiry. There's new challenges for me, and for him. And his health is not what it was, I've got to take that into account. There are intimations of mortality. He knows he's not the guy he once was."

COPD is incurable - does he worry about having to kill Rebus off?

"We all die, man. The only people who don't are fictional characters. If Sherlock Holmes is still going there's hope. I decided early on that he would live in something approximating real time. He's got human fallibilities. He tries kicking in a door of a flat and spends the rest of the book limping."

Rebus has kept up with modernity - he attempts to get to grips with WhatsApp and Twitter - but ultimately is 'a bit of a dinosaur'. "He still believes in old-style policing - walking the streets, picking up gossip. That's his way."  

Evidently the character keeps pulling him back, but it's 'not as pre-planned as it sounds', he says. "He's a good way of exploring Edinburgh and the world. A cop is a pretty good character, anyway. Cops and journalists are the only people who can investigate society from the top to the bottom."

In fact, he thought he had bade farewell to Rebus completely when, in 2007's Exit Music, the detective reached 60, stopped working and left St Leonard's police station for the last time. It was only when a friend of Rankin's mentioned changes to the retirement age that the books started coming again. "I didn't miss him," he said in 2013, somewhat surprisingly.  

Rankin, 58, grew up in the Fife mining town of Cardenden - his father worked in Rosyth dockyard and his mother worked in a chicken factory. She died when he was 19 and studying English at Edinburgh University. He had youthful ambitions of being a poet, joined a post-punk band called Dancing Pigs, held a succession of disparate jobs from grape picker to taxman, and only turned to prose when he was a postgraduate student. Overcoming his initial discomfort at being co-opted by the crime genre, he came up with Rebus after the publication of his first novel, The Flood, in 1986 - he never completed his PhD thesis on fellow Scots writer Muriel Spark. 

Things really took off with his 1997 novel Black and Blue, which adopted an angrier tone and sold four times as many copies as his previous books. During its writing, Rankin's youngest son Kit was being diagnosed with Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes severe disability. "I'd go to my study and I would suddenly get to play God," he once said.

Rankin, who was made an OBE in 2002, lives with his wife of 32 years, Miranda Harvey; their other son, Jack, studied classics at Newcastle. He has simple tastes, it seems - he likes beer, and records, and doesn't drive a particularly fancy car. In his spare time he sings in a band, Best Picture, that can count two journalists and a former member of The Bluebells among its members. "We should probably know better," he laughs. "But we still enjoy going on stage and jamming in a rehearsal room."  

He keeps a small house 'up in the wilds in the far north of Scotland in a little fishing village' where he hunkers down with his laptop when writing novels. There's no TV, mobile phone signal or internet to distract him; he just puts on some music - ambient electronica like Brian Eno, nothing with lyrics - and tries to produce around 3,000 words daily.

"If I've written all day, as a wee treat I go to the pub in the evening and have a meal. Go to bed early, get up the next morning, repeat the process. If you're doing that seven days a week that's 20,000 words a week. Within five weeks you've got a first draft."

A creature of habit, then? "Oh definitely. Almost OCD-ish. There's certain rituals. I've got my Snickers bars lined up because I need snacks, I need something as a pause-filler. Instead of nicotine I've got chocolate."Only when the initial draft is complete does he do any research into background details. "By then I know what I need to know, not what I might need to know. For example, with COPD, I just phone up somebody I know who's got it and say 'Talk me through it, what does it mean'."Such rapidity has its advantages. "If you write quickly, you inject pace. The other thing is, when you've got loads of subplots and characters, there's less chance of you forgetting how they all connect."

He is under contract to deliver one more book in the next two years. "It doesn't have to be a Rebus book. It could be a cook book, or a romance novel. Although I think my publishers would throw up their hands in horror. I don't know what happens after that. You just hope you've got one more story that you want to tell and people want to read."

Sheffield's Investigating Murder panel is yet to be finalised, but it presently comprises forensic anthropologist Dr Anna Williams, deputy chief forensic pathologist Dr Stuart Hamilton and DI Una Jennings of South Yorkshire Police. Jake Kerridge, the Daily Telegraph's crime fiction critic, is chairing the event which, confusingly, is not part of the Off The Shelf festival. Val McDirmid, another proponent of Tartan Noir, is appearing elsewhere in the city on the same night, rather splitting the audience.

"I know, it's a bit of a pain," says Rankin. "I didn't know about the book festival until somebody pointed that out. Hey-ho."

Authors, he says, just like meeting their public. "It's a pretty solitary occupation so when you let us loose we always enjoy it."

Investigating Murder: An Evening with Ian Rankin and Special Guests is at the Victoria Hall Methodist Church on Norfolk Street at 7.30pm on Thursday, October 18. Tickets are £15 or £25 with a hardback copy of In a House of Lies. Call 01142721749 or visit Eventbrite to book.

TV adaptation takes the box set approach

Work continues on a new television series based on Ian Rankin's Rebus books.

Eleventh Hour Films has acquired the TV rights to the novels, and Gregory Burke – who wrote the screenplay to '71, the critically-acclaimed film partially shot in Sheffield – is producing the script.

Rankin says he is 'low down the food chain' on the project, but that Burke plans to devote several hours to each story, perfect for Netflix-style binge viewing.

"His notion is to do it over a few hours, to take one or two books, do a mash-up, but do it over six, eight, 10 hours, because latterly when it was on TV with Ken Stott it was basically 45 minutes per book. Which isn't anywhere like long enough, so you were losing all the good stuff."

The script will probably be ready later next year. However, Rankin cautions: "Sometimes these things never happen. Let's wait and see."

He has avoided watching previous adaptations, but made an exception by going to Birmingham to see Rebus: Long Shadows, the play he has written in collaboration with dramatist Rona Munro. Charlie Lawson, better known as Coronation Street's Jim McDonald, takes the title role.

"It was a lot of fun. Rona was focused, she said it has to be a story that can best be told on the stage, not necessarily something that would work in a novel or short story. I'm going to go to the first night in Edinburgh as well. I'll see it at least a couple of times.”