Two years after Ian Rankin retired his curmudgeonly Edinburgh detective John Rebus, the Scottish author is back with a new book, The Complaints, and a new detective, Malcolm Fox, who investigates fellow cops for the Edinburgh police’s complaints department. Rankin recently spoke to Macleans.ca about Rebus’s retirement, getting off the “velvet-lined treadmill” and the best in new Scottish music.
Q: What was the reaction when The Complaints was released?
A: I was waiting for the backlash, especially in the U.K. I was waiting for the critics to go, “Well, it’s OK but it ain’t Rebus” and the readers to say, “We want Rebus, we don’t want this guy.” Neither has happened yet. I did a U.K. tour in September and at almost every event there was someone from a complaints department from a British police force saying, “I’ve read it, I don’t know how you know about all this stuff but you’re spot on.” No one’s noticed any big howlers.
Q: What was the most common question from readers or reporters?
A: “Is Rebus coming back? Have we seen the last of him?” I don’t know. I felt his presence throughout this book. He’s retired but he’s not stopped working.
Q: How did Malcolm Fox come into existence?
A: I read a newspaper article about an internal affairs inquiry and I thought, “I’ve never met someone from the complaints department. I wonder what kind of cops they are.” So I asked a police contact in Edinburgh if he could put me in touch with anybody. As they spoke about the job and the kind of cop you have to be or become, I could actually visualize Malcolm Fox as a very different type of cop from Rebus with a different philosophy. He has to be a team player—above reproach. He can’t do the short cuts; he’s got to be slow and methodical. He’s the antithesis of Rebus.
Q: I enjoyed reading the Rebus books but I never liked Rebus.
A: He would hate me. I never liked him. It was a love-hate relationship
Q: How much time did you have off after finishing the last Rebus book, Exit Music?
A: I didn’t have any time off. Literally the day after I finished Exit Music, I started a graphic novel for DC Comics called Dark Entries, and after that I was writing a libretto for a 15-minute opera, the lyrics for an Edinburgh band, a 100-page novella for people with problems reading and I did a serial for the New York Times that I eventually fleshed out to a full-length book. I’ve had no time to mourn the passing of Rebus.
Q: You like being busy?
A: I do. Though next year I’m taking the year off. I’ve written at least one book a year every year for 25 years. I’ll be 50 in April, my son’s just left high school. The auguries are saying take a gap year, have a sabbatical. Last month we came to Canada for three weeks and we started off in Vancouver and headed west until Tofino—you can’t get further west than that—and ended up in Toronto as a family. I had to fly home, but my son and wife stuck around and ended up in Halifax. I’m pissed off that we didn’t factor in Newfoundland, because then we’d have done the whole thing!
Q: Did you have a full measure of Malcolm Fox before you starting writing?
A: No, and I still don’t. There’s more of his ego and subconscious to be explored. And I like him as a character and a human being, so I can envisage one more book with him, but not 17.
Q: Why write about another police officer? And why set it in Edinburgh again?
A: After Rebus, my publisher signed me up to a two-book deal with no strings attached. My wife said, “This is perfect. You can write any stories or themes you’ve been unable to tell in the strictures of the Edinburgh crime novel.” And I wanted to write a cop story set in Edinburgh. I’m interested in the structural and psychological makeup in the city I live in. And if you want to explore the nature of the city, its psyche, a cop is a pretty good way to do it because he has access to every layer of society.
Q: What makes your books so interesting are the strong secondary characters like Jamie Breck. Is he too good?
A: He was a bad guy in the first draft. It was a stroke of the pen that made him a good guy. I just deleted a couple of sentences. It was so weird to play God like that so you can use him again. Hurrah! That doesn’t mean something won’t happen in a future book. There’s no game plan for the characters. No game plan for the series. I could decide politics will be so thrilling next year I’ll write a political thriller and bring politicians and the spin doctors and the media.
Q: But you’re taking next year off.
A: I know [sigh]. I promised everybody including myself and I’ve said that several times. So I can’t go back on that.
Q: Even if it kills you?
A: Well, I can have a nice long leisurely time to plan a book without actually writing it. That’s the thing you never get. It’s the most pleasant treadmill in the world, but as a best-selling writer, it’s a book a year. It’s like writing for a successful soap. It would be nice stepping off that velvet-lined treadmill.
Q: What are you going to do?
A: Some travelling: India, New Zealand, Europe. This is what the Canadian trip was about—Going back to places I’ve been but never seen. I’ve been to Australia eight times on tour over the years and have never seen a koala bear or a kangaroo. When I was in Toronto, we wandered up and down Queen Street West, spent a lot of time in The Bay, went and saw the Dead Sea Scrolls and just hung out and got a feel for the city.
Q: I thought there’d be more music in here? Or that Fox would be a musician?
A: Here’s the problem: I don’t want people to see him as Rebus light, or even skim Rebus or 2 per cent Rebus. So he wasn’t going to drink, go to the Oxford bar, drive a Saab or listen to music. And that was really, really sad for me.
Q: Given your interest in music, can you suggest three Scottish bands or songs people haven’t heard of in Canada?
A: St. Jude’s Infirmary. I’ve written some of the lyrics on their second album, This Has Been the Death of Us, which will be self-released. My vocals aside, it’s a good album. One of my favourite musicians is a guy called Dick Gaughan. He’s a folk singer and he’s got an album called a Handful of Earth that has been re-released on vinyl and CD and it has a single called Both Sides the Tweed about the relationship between Scotland and England. There’s a band that is quite interesting called the Gothenburg Address. It’s a Glasgow band, quite instrumental, with lots of guitars. Their first self-released album is about to come out.