Ian Rankin on Rebus’ return, and whether he’ll kill his famous character

In conversation with the best-selling author

Steve Black/Rex Features

Ian Rankin has sold more than 20 million books, most centred on Edinburgh detective John Rebus. After pushing the cranky, alcohol- and music-dependent cop into retirement in 2007’s Exit Music, when the character, who has aged in real time, hit the police force’s retirement age of 60, a change in the retirement rules means new life for Rebus. Now, in Saints of the Shadow Bible, Rebus is back on the police force, but he isn’t happy. He’s been demoted to sergeant, and is working under his old side kick, Siobhan Clarke.

Q: You’ve written 30-odd books. Do you ever worry about coming up with a good idea?

A: Of course I worry. The good news is that if you produce one novel a year, you only need one good idea a year. It’s not like writing comic books where you have to have a new idea every week or every month.

But it’s not getting any easier. What I do throughout the year is clip newspaper stories, people tell me stuff that I write down on scraps of paper, if I get an idea I’ll put it in my phone as a note. And I get all these together at the end of the year and look at what I’ve got. And it’s all these disparate bits and pieces and usually there is one that’s interesting or one that I’ll say, “What does that say about society?” or a true story that has no ending, no closure. And you hope there’s enough stuff there that can get you started. You only need the start, because once you’re started the story will tell you where to go.

Q: What were the ideas for Saints of the Shadow Bible?

A: With this book there were three specific things. One was a true story. It happened in England, right back at the start of this year. It was a cop who took a suspect out for a drive and the suspect eventually admitted to a murder and said to the cop, “Do you want me to show you where the body is?” and they went to this piece of moorland countryside and he said, “OK, the body is buried there.”  And then the suspect said, “Do you want to see another one?” The police had no inkling that this guy had killed more than one person, so the cop said, “Yeah, that would be great.” So they drove to another location and the guy said, “There’s a second body buried there.”  So they then went to the police station where the cop duly found out that they couldn’t prosecute the guy for the second murder because he had not followed protocol. He should have taken the guy back to the police station, gotten a lawyer etcetera, etcetera. But the cop said, “If I’d done that he might have clammed up and not said anything.” So the cop got in trouble, he nearly got kicked out of the police. I thought, “That’s such a Rebus thing to want closure first, protocol second.”

So that was sitting there in my little scraps of paper, along with a clipping from a magazine about the fact that in Scots law they’re about to do away with double jeopardy, which means that you can prosecute someone for a crime even if they were found innocent in a court of law if new evidence comes to law. So say someone was on trial for murder and was found not guilty. At the moment, if new evidence comes to light, you can’t reprosecute them. Or if they admit to it, you can’t reprosecute them. So they want to change that. (The law was changed.)

And the third thing, and the clincher, was that I was going to a lot of retirement parties for cops and I was hearing so many great anecdotes, so many great stories. And I would say, “Excuse me a second,” and I would walk into a corner and type these stories into my phone. All these little anecdotes of the way things used to be back in the 70s and the 80s and so that got me thinking about Rebus’s early days, what might have happened back then, what turned him into the cop he became when we first met him. So those three things, I put them in a blender and ended up with a book.

Q: Do you plot the whole book ahead?

A: No, that’s all I had. Pretty much that—the idea of Rebus needing closure on a case, of something that had happened in the past and of this change in the law, which meant that maybe the cops who had been his mentors were going to be in trouble for something they had done in the past.

Q: Rebus was in the cold-case squad. Why bring him back to the regular police force? You could have done this plot in cold case.

A: There’s never been a five-year plan, I never plan anything. So the reason Rebus came back in a cold-case book was because I got the idea for a cold-case book, and I thought, “OK, it can’t be Fox, Fox doesn’t work cold cases,” but I knew that’s probably what Rebus would be doing. There’s a real unit in Edinburgh composed of three retired cops and one serving cop. And I thought, “That’s what Rebus has been doing.” So whenever anyone asked, “What’s Rebus up to these days?” I could tell them. So when I got the idea for a story that was a cold case, I thought, “OK, I’ll bring him back” and in between times they changed the law in Scotland so that the retirement age has gone up [from 60 to 65], and they’re talking about 67—all because of me, obviously!

Q: To bring Rebus back, obviously!

A: Well, sadly when Rebus retired because he had to at 60, there was a member of the Scottish Parliament who stood up in Parliament and asked the justice minister if he would change the retirement age so that a fictional cop could continue to work [shaking his head in disbelief]. Sadly , she just passed away a couple of weeks ago. But she was still alive to see Rebus come back.

Q: Why have him back on the police force, not just in the cold-case squad?

A: Well, because he wants it, because he lives to be a detective. And cold cases are quite restrictive, there are only so many kinds of stories you can tell. So Rebus is very keen to get back into the regular police and although he was offered the chance to come back, he was offered a demotion at the same time. So he’s back to where he was in book one. So there’s a neat circularity there, that we’re going back to his earliest days as a cop because that’s what the case revolves around, also he’s back to the same rank he was when we first met him. All the police around him are getting on well and he isn’t. The bosses thought that sending him back to be demoted, he’d say, “oh, no, I won’t come back.” But, of course, he’s desperate to get back under any terms because he just lives for it. He lives to be a detective, to find the answers to questions.

Q: This time he reports to his old sidekick, Siobhan Clarke.

A: I know, she thinks she’s his boss.

Q: She’s become a really good detective.

A: Yeah, well partly because she’s learned from him, and partly because she’s learned from him what not to do. What parts of his character and his procedures she has to stay well away from. I think she’s developed into a very good character and quite a good foil for both him and Malcolm Fox because Fox’s time in internal affairs is at an end, so he needs friends because he’s going to go back into normal detective duties. And he desperately needs friends because he’s going to be surrounded by people who don’t like him and don’t trust him. So there’s really an interesting dynamic there.

When Rebus retired, which he had to do because he lives in real time, I still wanted to write about cops. I met someone who worked in internal affairs and I thought, “Great, it’s so different from Rebus. A different philosophy of life, a different mentality, a different psychology—everything. To do that job you have to be different from Rebus.” So Fox came along and I thought, “Great. He’s young. There’s a lot of books there for him.” Then a cop told me, “You know you don’t go into internal affairs for your whole career.” I said, “What!?” He said, “No, no, maximum of five years.” So I’d invented yet another character with inbuilt decrepitude, without knowing I’d done it. And when we first met him, he’d already been in internal affairs for three years, so after two or three books its time for him to come out again.

So it’s because I don’t do any planning. I don’t do any planning and I don’t know what I’m doing. I just stumble into things.

Q: Fox is so not Rebus. He’s utterly prepared, utterly organized. You only see the contrast when they are together. Is he going to be the new Siobhan Clarke?

A: I don’t know, because I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I’ve literally no idea what the next story is going to be, or the next book is going to be.

Q: As you’re writing the book, what did you think about Fox?

A: Well, there are lots of possibilities. Possibilities for his relationship with Siobhan, possibilities for him and Rebus, possibilities for Rebus and Siobhan. What you do is you try not to close off  too many possible routes you can take in the future, so it’s all up for grabs in a future book, whether it’s the next book or not.

I worked hard to make him likeable. In the first book, The Complaints, he’s quite dull. He’s a straightforward guy, a regular guy. He works well in a team, he doesn’t cross the line, he doesn’t have any particular vices, etcetera. How do you make him interesting? It took me two books to get there. And after a couple of books I thought, “Yeah, I like this guy.” Then when I brought Rebus back in Standing On Another Man’s Grave, as a protagonist, Fox had to be the antagonist, he had to be the bad guy. And fans came up to get books signed saying, “I don’t like him anymore! I used to like him and I don’t like him anymore,” so this book is my attempt to rehabilitate him, to get Rebus to like him again.

There are a lot of games being played, and you just hope that you don’t have to spell it out to the reader that in almost every scene, there’s stuff not being said, it’s kind of implied, and I don’t want to spell it out too much. There’s a lot of games being played, everyone’s playing games in this book. Everyone’s got an ulterior motive, everyone’s got stuff they’re keeping hidden.

Q: Still, readers don’t need to have read the previous books to enjoy this one?

A: No, I hope not. It’s a story of a guy coming back into the police and the police has changed beyond all recognition. And the nice thing for me is that I discovered that Rebus still has some skills that still make him useful in a modern police force. There’s that one bit where Siobhan says to him, “Look, you’re the only guy. I’ve got all these cops around me, they’re all sitting in front of their computers. You’re the only guy who has snitches, the only guy who has contacts in the underworld, I’ve got a list of stolen goods, can you go to bars and put the word out if someone tries to sell this stuff.” And when Rebus goes, he finds that half the bars have turned into a Tesco or a wine bar or a café and all the old snitches and contacts, half of them have gone.

Q: When talking of the Saints of the Shadow Bible era, it’s all old typewriters and mimeographs. No one wrote everything down then, that was not how it was done.

A: And it didn’t need to be done because you weren’t under the microscope the way you are now. The media were pretty much malleable in Scotland, so you could control what the media would say about any case. There was no social media, so the public didn’t get a say in what was going on, internal affairs weren’t as thorough as they are these days. It was a bit more lax, you got a bit more leeway. You could rough up a suspect and get away with it in a way that  is pretty much unthinkable now.

Q: Now the technology can trace everything back to a person, no one is hidden. Was the contrast between those two different worlds deliberate?

A: Yeah, I put Rebus up against it in the previous book, because it was about missing persons, and of course, if police are looking at missing persons today they go onto social media, they try to find the young person’s phone, have any of their friends been in touch, get on Facebook, get the word out there. Get on Twitter, make sure everyone knows this person is missing. And Rebus is sitting there, going, “What…? This doesn’t make any sense to me.” I had a lot of fun in the previous book with a young cop trying to explain Twitter to him, and Rebus is going, “and why would you want to do that?” He’s a dinosaur and he knows it. He’s the last of his kind. And there’s just enough room for him and no more the way policing has changed. But he’s still got a few skills—he’s dogged, he’s persistent, and he’s got a good nose. He’s got that thing that you can’t really replicate with computers and cellphones. He’s got a nose for when someone is lying to him. He’s got a nose for which direction he should go in to find answers to his questions.

The problem is that all those cops back in the day, in the early ’80s, also taught him some very bad lessons—about breaking the rules and getting away with it, how to hide that you’ve broken the rules, that you’ve broken the law yourself. You’re above the law. And this notion that the Saints are actually these people who are above the law, they make their own rules, is something that he felt fairly comfortable with as a young cop. But how comfortable is he about it now? He’s got to decide. This thing about whose side is he on? Is he going to protect his old friends and mentors? Or does he really want the truth to come out, even if it ends up putting him in the crap as well as everybody else?

Q: Without giving away the ending, I’d figured out who the killer was well before the last chapter. Was there a concern that you took the easy out?

A: No, when I start a book I never know what the ending is going to be, I never know who the culprit is when I begin writing. Hopefully towards the end of the first draft, the story tells me who it thinks the culprit is and why. And usually I’m quite happy to go along with that. People have this misconception that if you write crime fiction you must know the ending before you begin, you must almost work backward. But very few of us do. I’ve interviewed lots of crime writers and most of us tend not to know what we’re doing. When I start one of those books, I know as little as Rebus. The crime will allow me to  explore a theme I want to explore, but I don’t know who the killer is. In one book, it was the second draft before I worked out who the killer was.

But usually by 20 pages from the end of the first draft I’ve got a pretty good idea, but only because the story has led me there. Then, in the second draft, you go back and start to insert a few red herrings, and you tighten up a little bit, you take some stuff out because it’s making it too obvious. Nobody ever, ever, ever sees my first draft because they are so rough and they are full of these big capitalized messages to myself for the second draft saying, “I’ve no idea what’s going on, I’ll fix it in the second draft.” Or, “insert a scene here once I know who the killer is” My wife sees the second draft, nobody else. Because even the second draft is a bit rough. And she reads a lot of mystery novels so she’ll say, “I don’t understand why is he going there?”  or “I guessed that too quickly.”

It doesn’t bother me if anybody works it out. To me the least interesting part of a whodunit is the whodunit.

Q: From a reader not living in Edinburgh, have you ever thought of putting a map in one of your books?

A: Yup, people have suggested it. What my publisher says, and I kinda agree with him, is go buy one. You get the Edinburgh city centre plan for a couple of bucks. [laughing]

Q: You don’t plot things, but you must have put some thought into how to kill off Rebus?

A: I couldn’t kill him. The only thing I’ve thought about doing, is something I’ve been told Ruth Rendell has done. It might be apocryphal, but apparently Rendell has written a posthumous book featuring her detective Wexford, to be published after her death, which will draw a line under the series. Now if that’s true, it’s quite an interesting notion. Then she gets to say, “That’s the end of the series.” Although we know you can bring dead people back to life, in fiction, so she’s not completely protected her butt.

I’ve thought of killing him off, but I couldn’t do it. But my wife has said, and I might take her up on it, my wife has insisted that in a future book Rebus has to be in hospital, because he’s led such a charmed existence, healthwise. For a man of his age, the smoking and the drinking should have caught up with him big time.

Q: When we last talked in 2009, you were going to take a year off, but it never really happened. Now you’re 53 and again talking about a break from writing.

A: This time I’m really going to do it. Because last time I said I was going to do it, I wrote a screenplay, I wrote a libretto for an opera and a comic book. I took a year off from writing novels. But this time I ‘m taking a proper year off, which means no novel next year, no major writing project of any kind next year. The Catch-22 of any successful writer is you don’t get any time to think, any time to sit and let the ideas come to you, you’re always chasing ideas. Because you get so little time to come up with a book. Because if you’re doing a book a year, it means a book every six months, because then you’re being published and touring. And I can’t write while I’m touring. So I need some time to think about what I want to do next, what I want to write next. And wait for a great idea to come to me.

Q: What did your wife say?

A: She said terrific. She wants to do the travelling. I’d happily travel as far as the nearest pub and sit there with a newspaper and a pint, but she wants to do some proper travelling. She wants us to go to countries I’ve been to on tour but never seen. She’s talking of taking a train across India. I’d like to go to Australia and see a koala bear. I’ve been to Australia 10 times on tour and never seen a koala bear. I’ve never seen the Great Barrier Reef. And go to a few record shops and buy some records, just sit and stare into space. Back in the good old, bad old days when no one was really interested in my books, I’d lots of time to sit around, and ideas would come, if you stare into space long enough ideas just start coming. But the more successful you get the less time you get to stare into space.




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