Ian Rankin's novels about gruff detective John Rebus have sold in the millions, and according to some estimates the Scottish crime writer's books account for 10 per cent of all crime fiction sold in the United Kingdom.
Rankin has just released his 20th book in the series, Even Dogs in the Wild.
Sheryl MacKay: There's usually a theme or question that starts you on a new novel. What was the thought for Even Dogs in the Wild?
Ian Rankin: It was an odd one this time because it was an anecdote I was a told in a bar in a little village in Scotland and it was something that happened in that particular village. A suspected drug dealer had died of natural causes, but the rumour went around that he had buried a big stash of cash and drugs in the woods
And so over the weekend the villagers would take up shovels and forks and would all march to the woods and start digging in random spots to see if they could uncover this treasure trove, which they never did.
I loved that notion of, it's part Treasure Island, part Whiskey Galore!, there's some big loot that you might get your hands on if you tried hard enough. And that stuck in the back of my mind for ages and I got the notion that, what if it's gangsters from Glasgow who are hunting somebody who's double crossed them, he's hidden something in Edinburgh, they go to Edinburgh to find it, and come up against Edinburgh gangsters but at the same time come up against the cops who are on the tail they come up against, so you get a lot of tension right away.
And then the other thing was just an image that came to my mind was of Cafferty — the villain who used to run Edinburgh, Rebus's nemesis — standing in the living room of his nice big house,and it's dark outside so you cannot see, and there's someone standing in his garden pointing a gun at him.
There's just that image that came?
Just the physical image, of somebody pointing the gun through the window at Cafferty, and Cafferty not knowing they were there, and I thought, what can I do with that? Who is this person, and why would they be there?
And I knew that Rebus had retired because he had hit 65, and that's the absolute retirement age, full stop. Here's the thing, if somebody takes a potshot at Cafferty, he can't go to the police, as that would be seen as being a weakness, he's a gangster for goodness sake. But Rebus is no longer a cop, so he might actually use Rebus, or ask for Rebus's help.
And they've had this relationship over all these years...
They're best buddies who might kill each other, you never know which way it's going to go with them. And I never know — which is why I enjoy writing those scenes. I never know, when I sit down to write those scenes, how is it going to go this time. This game of chess between them. It doesn't get physical anymore because these guys are in their 60s now.
It was only after I'd written the book and read it through an edited it and read it again that I said, hey, this is a book about fathers and sons, the legacy that adults hand down to their children, which can be good or bad or indifferent, and there's a lot of those relationships in the book.
The Glasgow gangsters, the father and son, the father knows that at some point the son is going to usurp him and it's either going to be bloodless or bloody, and the father has to decide if he's going to let it be bloodless or fight against it. You've got Malcolm Fox who used to work alongside Rebus, and his father is failing, and Malcolm doesn't feel like he's proved himself to been a good detective and wants to prove himself to his dad before his dad dies. And there's numerous other relationships in the book that are mostly about parents and children
Is there anything in your life right now that's making you think of that relationship?
I do wonder. My books have always been a form of therapy, and maybe if I sat down with a psychoanalyst they would say, 'Well you know your sons are leaving home and moving away, they're in their early 20s, and you're losing those close ties you used to have, and you start wonder if you set them up well enough in life, and if you could've changed anything, so maybe there's something in that.
It's quite a time, this point where they fledge.
Yeah, and I don't think these days, maybe it's never been easy, but it doesn't seem to be easy these days. Kids in the U.K., they can't afford rent or mortgages, and many are still living at home in their 20s and 30s, or come back home after busted relationships, so it's an ongoing process, and nobody said it would be easy.
Thirty years you've been writing about John Rebus...
I didn't know I was going to be writing about this guy still...maybe I would've changed things, I would've made him younger for the start if I'd known back in the beginning if I was still going to be writing about him.
Didn't you try to kill him off once?
The first draft of the first book, I'm pretty sure I tried to kill him off. I can't find the draft, I've only got my vague memories of this, which are that he was shot and killed at the end of book one in the very first draft. I may still find it yet in one of the big boxes in my garage somewhere. I keep coming across stuff that I thought I'd lost forever, such as the manuscript of my very first book which was rejected by every publisher in the U.K.
Are you tempted to send it off again?
No! My wife says it's my best book. She's knows it annoys me when she says that. It's a black comedy set in a hotel in the highlands of Scotland featuring a kid with superhuman powers and a one-legged schizophrenic librarian called Janine. And the plot revolves around the kidnapping of a famous American novelist by the provisional wing of the Scottish National Party (laughs).
Back to Rebus … what's it like writing this guy when you sit down with this new notion?
More has changed in my life than has probably changed in his. When we first meet him he's divorced with a kid that his wife looks after. He's still divorced, and he's just been reunited with his daughter after a long absence. So in his personal life there's not been huge changes, where in my personal life I've gone from being a 24-year-old student to getting married, having kids, moving away to France for a while, moving back to Scotland, and seeing the changes in political and social life, and trying to reflect that in the pages of my books.
But the books are what they always have been — they're just ways of making sense of the world. This is why writers write books. It is therapeutic, because any angst or any personal problems I've got I just channel them straight to Rebus, and he becomes my punch bag in a way. When you meet most crime writers they tend to be very quiet, well-balanced individuals, because there's an exorcism that takes place, all our demons go into the page.