Ottawa Writers Fest: Mystery writer Ian Rankin talks about Rebus in winter

Ian Rankin. Photo: Hamish Brown

Here is John Rebus, the old lion in the winter of his life. His old colleagues are gone. His old snitches are gone. Even his favourite seedy hangouts have become wine bars.

He’s off the police force. He’s suffering from COPD and he’s certainly not the physical force he once was.

And yet the spark still burns.

“Rebus is a detective to his very core of his being,” says his creator the writer Ian Rankin. “It’s all he knows how to do. He wants to always feel he is a detective, in part, because if he is looking into other people’s problems he doesn’t have to think much about his own problems.

“He is no longer a cop. He doesn’t have that authority about him. He is no longer the macho guy. He knows he is mortal. Even (Big Ger) Cafferty, his nemesis, has gone through a similar phase in his life. Cafferty’s wondering if he’s still able to rule his profession.”

What’s a writer to do with characters like that?

Well, if your Ian Rankin, you work bloody hard at getting your characters into books.

Rankin’s latest, and surely one of his very best, is called In A House Of Lies.

In the book Rebus injects himself into a case after three boys find a rusted car in a deep gully. Inside are the remains of a long missing private investigator. It’s a case with roots and Rebus is tangled up in them.

In the mystery writer’s world you are governed by deadlines and Rankin had a book due last June. Last January, he didn’t have a clue what that book would be.

“I had nothing. I went on vacation with my wife and I took folder of scraps of news stories and character names, potential sub plots you name it.

“I just put it together in my head while on holiday and started writing in February.”

Rankin has been writing Rebus since the 1980s. In those early books, the character was very physical.

“He uses his size to intimidate people. He likes to get into fights. Now he can’t shoulder open a door.The later books in the series are really about mortality. Rebus is growing old and having to deal with not being the man he was.”

Rankin says he is enjoying that challenge of figuring out ways to get Rebus involved in police investigations when he’s no longer a cop.

“How can you get a guy who is in his late 60s, who has health issues, tied into a police investigation. That’s a lot of fun and a challenge.

“So far I have always found something t0 do with him. But the next book doesn’t need to be a Rebus book. It can be anything I want. I don’t know if it is a Rebus. Will it be the last one? I don’t know, I really don’t.

“Even when I start writing a book, I don’t know if he’ll be alive or dead at the end. The book before this, Rather Be The Devil, up until 50 pages from the end, I was thinking he might not make it this time.”

These Rebus books today have a touch of elegy about them, Rankin said.

“We are approaching an end game in terms of Rebus being a useful character to me. I can’t imagine him in his 70s and 80s still solving crimes.”

Rankin says he believes he likes his character more than Rebus would like him.

“He would see me as a wishy washy Liberal who never had to do hard day’s manual labour in his life. If we met in the Oxford Bar we could talk about music for awhile; we could talk about Edinburgh for a little while and then we’d have to go our separate ways. He’d get bored of me pretty quickly.”

The Oxford Bar has now become the place where Rebus fans come on pilgrimage and to meet Rankin.

“I go to the Oxford Bar and fans from all over the world have made a pilgrimage there and they are waiting for Rebus and who walks in the door but his creator who is a much less interesting person.”

Rankin does go though and sings books and poses for pictures.

“I pick up my mail there. People send stuff from all over the world addressed to Ian Rankin, Oxford Bar, Scotland. I don’t go there for pleasure I go for business.”

Rankin, too, likes his small drinking establishments. When he comes to Ottawa, he likes to hang at Chez Lucien in the Byword market. He’s set aside an hour in his stop in town on Oct.25.

“I think Rebus would feel at home there.”

Rankin does have a larger purpose in his novels.

“I began writing crime fiction because I wanted to explore the mess I thought society was in … the moral issues, moral questions and also the smaller questions. The stuff that goes on in every urban environment such as unemployment, people feeling disenfranchised, drugs and prostitution, gang culture and everything else.

“I want to explore all of that.”

Rankin’s Edinburgh has a darker side.

“It has always been this Jekyll and Hyde city. If you visit and you just see the Castle and the Royal Mile, the museums and the gardens, you might think what a great and cultured place this is. But scratch the surface and just below are these social and political issues, all these problems.

“Crime fiction allows you to explore that and the detective allows me to explore the city from top to bottom from the people in charge, the politicians, the bureaucrats, the CEOs right down to the very bottom who feel the city they live in is a different world.

“Rebus has allowed me to explore Edinburgh from top to bottom. The whole process with the books is me getting to a closer understanding of the complex mechanism of that city.”

Rankin’s novels also keep track of the evolving role of the police in the Scottish capital and beyond. Police corruption lies at the heart of In A House Of Lies, for example. And the force is under increased scrutiny and suspicion because of that.

“The structure of the police and the way they investigate crimes has changed a lot in Scotland in past few years. I have to keep up with that and get it across to readers without boring them to tears.”

In a surprising move the chief of police invited in Scottish crime writers to brief them on changes to the force. He wanted them to know the details and get them right.

“He knows we are taking that out to the world at large and explaining it to people. He would like us to get details correct if possible.”

As for the burden that may pose?

“I am a fiction writer. The book has to be readable and if putting all the bureaucratic changes in is going to slow down a story I’m not going to do it. I will paint a broad brush stroke.

“The sense I give in the books is that stuff is happening just off the page in a room next door.”

Rankin definitely does not want to be an apologist for the police.

“I only go near them when I have an actual question. And that’s getting harder because a lot of the guys I used to use, and they were predominantly guys, are retired and moved on.”

Fitting for the man who created Rebus who has always been a maverick. He doesn’t like working on a team. He’ll do his own investigation in his own way and he will get you a result.

Rankin believe that “all authors are detectives at heart. There are big questions we are trying to get answers to, either in our personal lives or in the world around us.”

In A House Of Lies (Orion)
Ian Rankin
In town: The author is at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 25 at 8:30 p.m. A noon hour lunch is sold out. For information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.