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The double life of Ian Rankin

The crime writer on alter-egos, Scottish independence and why he refused to meet Ian Brady.

By Kate Mossman

The windows in Ian Rankin’s office stretch right to the floor. He lives just over the way, so his wife can look out and see whether he’s working, or slacking off and listening to his records. Unlike most writers, Rankin does not seem to struggle with discipline, but there is little evidence of his feverish industry in this room. No sign that Inspector Rebus is concocted here – that on this unassuming desk, with great regularity, he pulls out his decaying, unhappy, ingenious alter-ego. Five months for each book, December to May, seven days a week; short stories in the summer; then publishing in October, and press until Christmas, when he starts the whole process again. It could be the work station of any Edinburgh University student: a laptop, a portrait of Muriel Spark – the subject of Rankin’s unfinished PhD – and a few Post-it notes with inspirational quotes which you can’t imagine he’d need: “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea” (Iris Murdoch).

Last year, Rankin “wrote himself out of the pandemic” with a new project, completing the final novel of the late Glaswegian crime writer William McIlvanney, whose detective series inspired his own. He also wrote the reality TV crime show Murder Island, which aired on Channel 4 on 5 October. And he managed one book about Rebus, whom he’d saddled with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2019. Rebus would have a tricky time with Covid, so Rankin wrote a play, Rebus: Lockdown Blues. Brian Cox, the actor he’d always wanted to play Rebus, performed it on Zoom from a cabin in upstate New York.

Rankin walked the streets of Edinburgh during the lockdowns, but wonders, as he stirs his instant coffee, “Is a city still a city when there’s no one in it?” He couldn’t drink in his favourite bar, the Oxford on Young Street, a tiny Georgian pub bare to Calvinist proportions, with no music and six locals at the bar, all of whom know him. On his 60th birthday last year, he took a beer and a pint glass and stood outside, alone.

He is skinny, with the kind of impressive brown thatch you might see on a Britpop star grown to middle age. On his walls are Blu-Tack’d VIP passes to Brian Wilson gigs, his huge record collection is alphabetised, and an altar of quality hi-fi equipment stands in the other room. “I like old-fashioned rock stars,” he says. “Proper magical, otherworldly rock stars, like the Stones in their Exile on Main St period. So I’d have probably been a very bad rock star myself.” He once sang with the band Best Picture, which had Bobby Bluebell, who wrote “Young at Heart”, on guitar. He really liked being a frontman. “If I’d had success early on with the books, I’d have been a nightmare. It’d be gold jukeboxes and pinball machines and helicopters. By the time success found me, I was quite grounded.”

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Nothing reaches Rankin’s publisher or agent until his wife Miranda, whom he met at university 40 years ago, has read his first draft. This is the most nerve-wracking part of the process, he says: “until you show somebody, it’s perfect”. His editor asked for some changes to the McIlvanney novel: “He felt it was mostly just men smoking in pubs and having conversations. I said to him, go and read his three other Laidlaw novels and you’ll see that’s what happens.” Rankin’s own beloved con, “Big Ger” Cafferty, owes much to McIlvanney’s gangster John Rhodes. Like Laidlaw, the early Rebus quoted Walt Whitman, until Rankin realised that was highly unlikely. Rebus grew into himself – but the challenge of ghosting McIlvanney was too sweet to resist. He received a hundred pages of notes from the writer’s widow, including the bones of a prequel, Laidlaw’s first case.

There was a beginning, and a postscript, but not much of a middle. “In the deep structure of Willy’s notes was the answer to who did it and why, but he hadn’t laid it out.” There were also bits of another book entirely, Laidlaw’s last case, notes about politics, and bits of handwriting that his widow couldn’t read – including the regular appearance of the word “syzygy”, meaning a confluence, a coming together of things. “It looks like a bad hand in Scrabble,” Rankin says. “But there is a theory, the ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’, which I’m sure William would have known about, which is about the Scots wanting to be where extremes meet, like a clash of head and heart. Like magnets being held apart.”

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Rankin once said that authors who write about amateur sleuths only do so because they don’t need to understand how the police work. McIlvanney’s Laidlaw prequel is set in 1972 – meaning no mobile phones, GPS positioning or CCTV, the banes of every crime writer’s life. But ‘72 was a big year for Ian Rankin, too. It was the year all the boys at his school in Cardenden, five miles from Kirkcaldy in Fife, started wearing bovver boots and Harrington jackets and talking about A Clockwork Orange. It was the year he moved from the child section of the local library to the adult, and read The Godfather. Glasgow was “gangs, razors and Stanley knives” but Edinburgh had “skinheads, Doc Marten boots and fists”. Rankin claims to have an aversion to violence. “Whenever I’m in a situation that looks like it might turn violent, I get really queasy.” How did he avoid it as a child?

“By being a chameleon. It was a small community, it didn’t do to be different. So I did a really good act of looking like I fitted in. I’d be hanging on the street corner, giving hard stares to the cars that went through the main street with everybody else. But when they said, ‘Right, we’re going to have a fight with the next village over,’ I’d go, ‘I’ve gotta go home,’ and I’d write about it instead. I’d sit in my bedroom and quietly write, without telling anybody that I was writing. Song lyrics and poems and stories and stuff.”

Crime writers, he says, are more interested in why crime exists, and in the meeting point of good and evil, than in violence itself. He was good friends with the late American TV presenter Anthony Bourdain, who wrote chef-centred crime novels before his food shows made him famous. Bourdain once told Rankin, “Evil is when fairly decent people make compromises. That’s the evil I want to understand more, when good people struggle with the evil within themselves.” Bourdain, like Rankin, was squeamish: one of his own scenes, involving a rotary meat slicer, he was never able to reread.

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“In Scottish literature, we’ve always had this thing with Jekyll and Hyde,” Rankin explains. “With people being one thing on the surface and something else underneath, or being ‘schizophrenic’. There’s possibly a Calvinist thing going on. People who, on the surface, are pious but there’s all sorts of demons driving them.”

Does this explain the biggest cliché of crime fiction, a fascination with the line between criminal and cop? “Well, these days, crime writers who write about cops, on both sides of the Atlantic, are having to deal with things such as [the murder of] George Floyd and the stuff that’s happened in the UK with heavy-handed police,” he says. “You’re thinking, are we writing about the good guys? In Scotland, we’ve had the killing of Sheku Bayoh [a young Sierra Leonian who, in 2015, died in police custody in Kirkcaldy], which was our own George Floyd moment, though it’s hardly mentioned… You think, can I stand up for that? I’m lucky. I’m not writing about cops any more – I’m writing about a retired cop, thank God.”

In 2002, while making a TV series on the subject of evil, Rankin turned down a meeting with the Moors murderer Ian Brady. His producer had contacted Brady’s mother, but received a direct message from her son: “Mr Rankin talks to me.”

“The director was very excited,” he recalls. “I said, ‘No fucking way am I letting him inside my head.’ Because you can’t unmeet him. I knew he played tricks – he had nothing left to do but play mind games with his victims, and the family of his victims. He’d written a book called The Gates of Janus, which is basically an apologia for serial killers. I said, ‘No, I don’t want to meet him.’ So, there are lines I don’t cross.”

There cannot be many crime authors who would turn down an exclusive with the UK’s most feared murderer. The commercial potential would have been huge. You can’t help but wonder whether this highly-organised writer feared the loss of his magic formula, should Brady really mess with his head. The loss, perhaps, of Rebus.

Between 1987 and 1997, Rankin wrote about his detective for no clear audience and limited sales. He lived for six of those years in a remote village in the Dordogne, in order to afford to do so. A friend of mine – whose father mowed Rankin’s garden – stayed in the house as a child, and knew it was owned by a fledgling novelist. She recalls watching electrical storms from a veranda, slipping on slugs in the garden; an unearthed fridge you could only safely open with an oven glove. Rankin was far removed from the press circuit there – all he had, back in the UK, were the slow efforts of book sellers, saying, “If you like Ruth Rendell, try this guy”, year upon year. But his ambitions for the series were not small. He likes to say that every Rebus novel is a piece of a jigsaw which, once complete, will show you modern Edinburgh, and modern Scotland.

He insists it is perfectly normal for crime writers not to know who committed the crime when they start on a new book, or even until quite far into it. At the turn of the millennium, Rankin conceived of a trilogy about the Scottish parliament. In book one, Set In Darkness, the main character would be campaigning to be an MSP. In book two, he’d be elected; and in book three, parliament would be up and running. But he ended up killing his man off at page 20, instead – later saying one book was all the Scottish parliament deserved. “Giving Scotland its own parliament made people think about how much power they wanted, compared to what they’d been given,” he says. “If you want more self-determination, how far do you have to go to achieve it?”

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On the subject of independence Rankin tends to play as he did as a child – chameleonic: “I prefer a nice quiet life.” It is a tricky subject for him as a hero of Scottish literature: Nicola Sturgeon is a fan. Rebus, he’s said, would not vote for independence. But his DS Siobhan, of English parentage but raised in Scotland, would.

“There’s plenty of English people who made their home up here and are fervently pro-independence,” he says. “They look at Westminster, and think, what a mess, surely we can do better than this? Scots tend to vote for parties who don’t end up running the UK. If you can’t foresee a time when the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats would be in charge, then you think you’ve got no voice and your vote is wasted. You think, if we vote for independence our vote won’t be wasted. I can see the attraction of that. But I’m a Labour Party member, for better or worse. I have a dream that one day the Labour Party will get back in power.”

He is a friend of Alistair Darling, who once lived a few doors down in Edinburgh, and of Gordon Brown, another Fifer. When Brown assisted in a financial buyout to save Raith Rovers Football Club in 2005, Rankin bought shares: “He said, you’ll never see a penny of this money back but I’m calling it shares anyway.” Rankin was invited to 11 Downing Street for dinner when Darling was chancellor, and Brown was prime minister. That night, Brown gave him a tour next door. “He didn’t want a separate office in No 10. His desk was mixed with all the staff – he didn’t want to be at arm’s length,” he recalls. “Brown is a very, very clever man who got the job he wanted, and it crumbled to dust in his hands. It must have been an extraordinary thing to happen.”

Does he think Scottish independence is inevitable? “Nothing’s inevitable. I don’t happen to think this is the right time. I think there’s a hell of a lot more we have to deal with first. There’s a lot our politicians should be focusing on instead. Everything’s become very binary, in life and in politics. Us and them, yes and no, you’re for us or against us. Most people are conflicted and most people have got doubts. If you’re saying 50.5 per cent is a big enough margin to take a country out of a union, you’re having to take 49.5 per cent of the population with you who don’t want it – and that’s not easy.”

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It’s almost as though we are back to the Caledonian antisyzygy, the place of tension where opposites meet. “Good and evil is binary; yes and no is binary,” he says. Brexit was the “real, hard wrench”. “In Scotland, we’ve always thought of ourselves as being very European. I remember going to France and going, ‘je suis Ecossais’ and talking about the Auld Alliance, and the French would go, ‘What the fuck is he on about? We’ve never heard of any of this stuff.’ For the Scots, it was drummed into us. The French couldn’t care less. They thought it was a team that sometimes beat them at rugby.”

Rankin may be the best-selling crime writer in the UK, but he intended to become a literary novelist and a professor of English: teaching was something his parents could get behind. His father worked his way up in Fraser’s Greengrocers in Lochgelly, Fife, from delivery boy to store manager. Both his parents were married and widowed before they met: Rankin was a late arrival, in their early forties.

His mother died when he was 19, in his first year at Edinburgh University. Even today, he does not know what ended her life. “They said it was a stroke or multiple sclerosis. Even on her death certificate they still weren’t sure what killed her.” He’d be “talking  about bloody Milton during the week”, he says, “and then going home to see my dad, and my mum would  be in bed, deteriorating”. Within two months of her death, Rankin got meningitis, which he believes he contracted working in a chicken factory over the summer. “I was conscious when they gave me a lumbar puncture,” he says, with a flicker of ghoulish energy. “The fluid flew halfway across the room. I could feel the pressure on my brain release straightaway as they got the fluid out my spine. So, that was a happy time, spending a summer of my 20th year in a hospital, reading Chaucer.”

Rankin got a high 2:1 (“They didn’t want to give too many firsts,” he says). He was given funding for his Spark PhD at the last minute. He produced 16 chapters while writing his first novel, which are now in the National Library of Scotland along with his personal archives. His 1997 novel Black and Blue was on the Scottish curriculum for a time: it was the Rebus novel that broke through, bringing him back from France. It was, he has said, a book written in anger.

Rankin’s two sons, Jack and Kit, were born in the Dordogne. As a baby, Kit developed slowly: “France was a weird time for all sorts of reasons,” he says, “partly because when Kit came along, we had no idea what was wrong with him.” The nearest hospital was 50 miles away and for many weeks the family drove back and forth for appointments, his wife struggling to translate the medical terminology. Eventually, a specialist “saw Kit chuckling away” and identified the neurogenetic disorder Angelman syndrome, a diagnosis of mental and physical special needs.

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Now 27, Kit lives in a community in Edinburgh that was closed to Rankin’s family during the pandemic. For a year, they could only see him over the wall, or through the gate. The staff suggested FaceTime, “but two-dimensional screens don’t mean anything to him. It would upset him because he’d hear our voice and think, ‘Why am I not getting a hug?’” With the broadcaster Jo Whiley, whose sister Frances has learning disabilities, Rankin led a successful “double-pronged” campaign to give people with special needs higher priority for Covid vaccines. Now, the family can take Kit out again.

When Rankin discovered his son would not be able to walk, he took it out on his detective. In The Hanging Garden, he put Rebus’s daughter in a wheelchair after a hit-and-run. “He’s been a good punchbag for me,” he says of Rebus. “A great way of dealing with all kinds of psychological trauma. Not least dealing with Kit. ‘How am I going to deal with this? I’ll give it to Rebus.’”

Does he love Rebus? Rankin looks mildly disgusted. “No, I don’t. I’ve got a very complex relationship with him. He certainly wouldn’t love me. We’ve got nothing in common.” Does he ever fantasise about killing him? “No, but I guess it’s going to have to happen at some point. Either I’ll die or he’ll die. I just don’t know which one of us it’s going to be.”

“The Dark Remains” by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin is published by Canongate

This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places