Ian Rankin’s Trysts With Evil

Honestly? I stopped reading crime and detective fiction after the usual Famous Five, Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie rites of passage in school. But Rankin’s a wonderful speaker, fascinating whether you’re a fan of his genre or not. My story for the newspaper was necessarily short because of space constraints. But he was so interesting I just had to tell the whole story here. Ah, the pleasure of not having a word count! 🙂

Crime Writer Ian Rankin delves into evil with gleeful enthusiasm. Which could explain how he found himself in Rome, getting exorcised by no less the Chief Exorcist Of The Vatican. “I was interviewing him, and I asked him exactly how he does an exorcism.” Apparently, the exorcist suddenly produced a bag and busily started delving into it, after saying something to Ian in Italian. “I looked at the translator, and he said, “He says he’ll show you.” It turned out alright. “Once they got me off the ceiling and scraped the green bile from my mouth, I was fine,” Rankin says wryly, taking a sip of beer. He adds with a shrug, “I told them, for me, that’s an average evening.”
Appropriately enough Rankin — creator of the much-loved perpetually rebellious Inspector Rebus — is in conversation with Prateep V Philip, Inspector General of police. Bestselling author Rankin’s the recipient of four Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards, with books are translated into 22 languages. Philip’s the pioneer of the internationally acclaimed Friends of Police movement.
“It’s first time in my career that I’ve been interviewed by a cop – where I’ve not been a suspect,” grins Rankin, going to talk about why he’s so fascinated by crime writing in a world where happy endings aren’t always a given. “There are readers who come to crime novels for a closure they didn’t get in real life.” While early crime fiction was all about retribution, he says people seem more realistic now. “Readers are much more open to the fact that maybe the bad guy gets away with it.”
This could explain why he’s so fascinated by the idea of one individual have so much potential for good, as well as evil. When Philip points out that he’s seems to follow a template set by Robert Louis Stevenson, best known for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Rankin states he was a huge influence on his writing. Stevenson in turn, he says, was inspired by Deacon Brody, a respectable tradesman and pillar of the community by day and a burglar by night.
“Frustratingly Stevenson set the novel in London. I really wanted to explore this human possibility for good, and also for evil, in Edinburgh.” Ian talks of how tourists only see a magnificent Edinburgh of cathedrals, monuments and history. “But there’s a living, breathing city just below which absolutely nobody is talking about.” He’s interested in this dichotomy, so similar to human nature: “A cultured Edinburgh and the chaos within.”
It manifests itself constantly, as far as Rankins’ concerned. “I think if you’re a writer you’re a schizophrenic personality,” he deadpans, talking of how writing is cathartic. “I’d be dangerous if I didn’t write everything down.”
Despite the writing, he seems to be having quite an effect on his neighbourhood, Writers Block, also inhabited by JK Rowling and Alexander McCall Smith. “Soon after I moved in, there was a phone call from a reporter. He said, there’s been a murder just around the corner, do you have a comment.” Rankin continues mournfully, “Next, there’s a knock on my door. It’s Professor McCall Smith and he says, ‘Mr Rankin, you’ve really brought the tone of the neighbourhood down. You just moved in and there’s been a murder within a week.”
Most of Rankin’s stories tend to include murder. “It’s the only crime where something is taken that cannot be replaced.” As crime becomes more devious, Philip asks if writers find it difficult to keep up, adding with a laugh. “You know what they say: The criminal’s the artist and the cop’s merely the critic.” Rankin agrees, “Crime writers have to be pretty savvy these days. We have to even keep up with technology.”
Besides readers expect more of crime-solving characters these days. “Now we don’t belive that amateurs can just stumble on a crime scene and the police say, ‘It’s ok to let Miss Marple in.’ It just doesn’t happen,” says Rankin, adding, “As readers we want our characters to be complex. It helps if they work alone.” A lot like his Inspector Rebus actually.
Talking of how Rebus is quite true to life, Rankin says, “A lot of the cops I met early in my career became enthralled by their job. It took over their life… seperations, divorce, heavy drinking — that was the culture of the 80s. Rebus is the last breed of detective that used to be the norm.” He adds thoughtfully, “But his heart is true, he’s on the side of the angels.”
One of the features that makes Rebus far more multidimensional than stock detective characters is his love for music. “It’s a good way of delineating character. The Beatles were nice boys you could take home to your mom, the Rolling Stones were rebellious. Rebus is anarchic, he like The Stones.
As for Rankin? He likes The Who. “I mentioned The Who in one of my books and I got an e-mail from the lead singer, Roger Deltrey. It was a protected address, so I couldn’t reply,” he says, adding “I mentioned it again in my next book, and he wrote to me again. So now I mention The Who in every book – it’s the only way I get an e-mail from Deltrey!”
Meanwhile Rankin’s writing lyrics for a band called ‘St Jude’s Infirmary’ “When I was 19 I was in a very unsuccesful band, where I wrote the lyrics. Suddenly 30 years later I find myself writing lyrics again,” he says, adding wryly, “Like most middle-aged crime writers, I’d rather be a rock star than an author.”

(The event was organised as part of The British Council’s Lit Sutra Festival, supported by Landmark, at the Taj Connemara Hotel.)