“I can’t believe we’re overlooking the most famous restaurant in Reykjavík,” says Ian Rankin, as we sit down. It takes me a moment to realise that he is not referring to the high-end restaurant SALT, in which we are sitting, but rather the hot dog stand across the street. “I hear Bill Clinton ate a hot dog there,” he adds. “Yes, and apparently he liked it a lot,” I reply. “Oh yeah? Well, he is a man of the people, he likes simple things,” Rankin says, stirring imagery of Monica Lewinsky in my head.
Ian Rankin is the number one bestselling crime novelist in the UK. His detective stories on the adventures of John Rebus of the Edinburgh Police have been translated into 24 languages and have been dramatised for TV, starring John Hannah as inspector Rebus.
Rankin has received numerous awards for his writing, among them the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Fiction for Black & Blue, the Edgar award for Best Novel and the Deutsche Krimi Prize, Germany’s most prestigious award for crime fiction for Resurrection Men, to name a few. In 2005 he was awarded the Crime Writers Association’s Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement. The Reykjavík Grapevine met with Rankin during his recent visit to Iceland to learn more about the man and his work.
/// I read somewhere that you did a documentary series on the subject of evil. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about that?
– It was three one-hour episodes that were shown on Channel Four Television in the UK. It was never shown anywhere else. It was going to be a series on criminology and the criminal mind. Then we thought, ‘How can we talk about criminality without talking about the more basic subject of evil?’ So in episode one, we tried to establish a definition of evil. Does evil mean the same to people in different countries, in different cultures, in different ages? We found that incredibly difficult, to actually get a definition of pure evil. We found that there were gradations. People are more or less evil. Then in episode two, we investigated where it comes from. Are people born bad or made bad? Is it a chemical imbalance in the brain or genetic? Is it because they are brought up badly, educated badly, whatever. In episode three we asked, ‘What do we do about it?’ Do we put people in jail? Do we try them? Do we try to change them? Do we execute them?
So I got to do some really interesting things. My two favourites were… In one episode I went to Rome and was exorcised by a priest. He is the chief exorcist of the diocese of Rome and I was supposed to be interviewing him and he brought all this equipment out and said, ‘It is easier if I just show you,’ and he performed an exorcism on me. So, that was interesting. In another episode I went to a jail in Texas where they keep all the death row inmates, all the people they are going to execute. I interviewed a guy who had been there for 15 years, and as far as I know, he is still there, so he has now been there for 20 years. That was interesting as well, I mean, we were looking at forgiveness and whether you can atone for your crimes and whether people can forgive you for crimes you have committed. It was a really interesting series. We spoke to psychiatrists and a neurologist and the chief rabbi in London, murderers, cops. We tried to get a cross section of society to talk to us about evil and just found out that we talk very easily about evil, but we don’t always know what we mean.
/// Did you come to any grand conclusions?
– No. Except that it is a much more difficult thing to define than you would think. And sometimes, all it takes to commit an act of evil is to do nothing. We looked into the case of some guys who had been conscripted, they had been made to join the SS towards the end of WWII, and they had been told that their job would be to go into villages and execute everybody, and the commander said that if you don’t want to go, step forward, and very few of them stepped forward. These were ordinary guys, they were bakers and farmers, barmen and teachers, and very few of them stepped forward, because they did not want to stand out from the crowd. They did not want to be different and they were afraid that they might be punished, so they went in and executed everybody and we were looking at that case. It is interesting because we think of an act of evil as being Pol Pot or something, you know, a massacre. But sometimes all it takes for evil to actually happen is for someone to do nothing. And I decided that it is much easier to talk about acts of evil. I can point to an act and say, ‘That is an act of evil’ but the person who committed it may not be irredeemably, forever evil. I think we will have to admit that people are capable of change.
/// Do you feel this experience has helped you in your writing?
– Definitely, yes. I think right away, the book I wrote straight after it was called A Question of Blood and was about a shooting at a high school, and it brought up all kinds of questions about moral accountability, and doing nothing and whether people can be evil or just commit an evil act. So it did affect the books. But, as a writer, everything you do affects the books. Last summer I went on a holiday to a place in Scotland, and… I found a little forest, and in the forest was a little area where people would leave bits of clothing as a good luck charm. They would get good luck it they left some clothing there. So this bit of the forest had trousers hanging from the trees and socks and blouses and as it rotted over the years, because this had been there for hundreds of years, and fell to the ground, the ground was covered with pieces of cotton and cloth, and I thought, ‘My god, what a great place for murder,’ you know, just as soon as I saw it. So in the new book, the book I am finishing just now and will publish this November, that is the murder scene, this place I just happened to come across on a holiday.
/// So in your next book, the crime scene is going to be Reykjavík then?
(Laughs.) – Maybe. We’ll see, I have never taken Rebus far from Edinburgh as I don’t think police travel much in real life and I do try to keep the books as realistic as possible. But, recently, a couple of cops have told me that there are some certain circumstances under which they would travel abroad. To pick up a suspect, somebody is a runaway, or because a local person has been murdered on a holiday, so a cop would go out. So yeah, when I run out of things to say about Edinburgh.
The problem is that Edinburgh keeps bringing me new material, new things to write about, every time I think I know everything there is to know about the city, I find out something that is new or strange. I’ll give you an example from a book I wrote not that long ago called The Falls. I went to the museum in Edinburgh, and I’ve been to the museum maybe 50 or 100 times, but a curator there recognised me and came up to me and he said, ‘Can I show you something?’ and he took me up to the fourth floor, all the way in the back and showed me this little display box with beautiful wooden coffins with tiny wooden dolls in them, beautifully dressed.
Seventeen of these had been found in the centre of Edinburgh in 1830, and no one knew what they were doing there, no one knew why they were there. I said, ‘This is fantastic,’ and I asked friends and nobody had heard of this story. So I had to write a whole novel about it, called The Falls, just to give it some closure. Which it didn’t have in real life.
/// I was recently in Edinburgh myself, and I was surprised to find that the atmosphere in the city is very… corporate is not really the right word, but it is full of government officials and it has this sort of corporate/official spirit somehow.
– Yes, it is the seat of the government and it makes its money off what we call ‘the invisibles,’ so it’s not making things. It’s not manufacturing; it’s insurance and banking, and the fact that it specialises in these invisibles, I think, has in fact seeped into the whole atmosphere of place, so the people are quite reticent and quiet and it’s hard to get to know them. But I mean, the law and the church and everything is centred in Edinburgh.
/// And then of course, you have the city of Leith (the shadier suburb of Edinburgh) right next to it, which is a completely different place.
– Yes, a bit rougher. Well, the reason I started writing books about Edinburgh when I was a student, was that the city I lived in, in the 1980s, wasn’t the city I recognised from the literature, and it wasn’t the city the tourists were seeing. The tourists would come to Edinburgh and see the castle and the bagpipes and the tartan, museums and history and tradition. But they wouldn’t see this real living and breathing contemporary city with lots of contemporary problems. Like the worst AIDS rate in Western Europe per capita, the worst heroin problem in Europe at that time, in the late eighties, a lot of social deprivation, but nobody talked about that and no one seemed to be doing anything about it. It was like Edinburgh was a museum. So I wanted to get beneath the surface.
/// If you stay away from the souvenir shops and tourist places, then there is nothing really distinctively Scottish about it.
– A lot of Scottish people would agree with you. Edinburgh is seen as being an English enclave. If you go to Glasgow, Glaswegians will be very dismissive of Edinburgh. They don’t think of it as being a Scottish city. But in fact, there is an awful lot in Edinburgh that is Scottish. For example, when you arrive by train at Waverly Station named after Walter Scott’s first novel, and you come out and see the Scot Monument right in the middle of the Princes Street Gardens. You become aware that there is a whole kind of literary heritage in Edinburgh, and Scots invented the historical novel really by writing about Scotland and Edinburgh in particular. But once you move out, you start to get the football rivalry between the Hearts and the Hibs, which are two parts of the city, Hibs being the Catholic team, and Hearts being the Protestant team, so you got the religious divide. The New Town and the Old Town. The New Town is very structured and rational and the Old Town is badly designed and strange and quirky. So the New Town is Dr. Jekyll and the Old Town is Mr. Hyde. You start to get these splits that make a much more interesting city I think.
/// I read somewhere that you have dabbled in music.
– Yes, New Wave Punk. I was a singer for a band called the Dancing Pigs for about six months. We only existed for six months. We never made any records, we went into a recording studio and did five tracks, but we were really pretty bad. I mean, there were some good things about us, but the singing was not good. But in one of my novels, Black and Blue, I needed a band who were like R.E.M. or U2, to be doing a Greenpeace concert in Scotland. And I decided instead of U2 or R.E.M., why not Dancing Pigs? So in fiction, we became a huge band.
/// A dream realised?
– Yeah, a dream realised. Well… actually, the dream was realised recently. A Scottish singer/songwriter called Jackie Leven read one of my books and saw himself mentioned, Rebus was listening to Jackie Leven, and he thought ‘Jesus Christ.’ So he contacted my publisher who put us in touch with each other and eventually we started doing these concerts together. I would read a long short story and he would do songs relevant to the theme. This was so successful that we recorded a double CD of that show. Which was fantastic. So suddenly, I would walk into Virgin or HMV or one of those big record shops, and I would find myself in the racks… beside R.E.M., which was such a buzz. So after all these years of being a frustrated rock star, I got a glimpse of what it might be like.
/// A recent book of yours is on immigrant issues, and I hear your next book is going to be on the G8 meeting in Edinburgh. Are you swaying towards more social consciousness?
– Well, I think the books are getting more political as I get older, as I am. I think that is reflected in the books. A story comes from me getting interested in some big question coming into my head and in order to answer that question or explore that theme, I write a book. With the Fleshmarket Close, the book about the asylum seekers, what happened was that an asylum seeker got murdered in Glasgow, as a race crime, a crime of racial hatred, but it made me think about Scottish identity and whether we are a racist country, and how much racism there is. So, in order to explore that subject, I wrote a book. I just moved the murder to Edinburgh and gave it to Rebus to deal with. With the G8 novel, I thought, this is just such a big deal, every cop in Scotland is involved in this. There is no way I can ignore it. The next thing, when I started to think about it, Rebus, because of his reputation, is the only cop in Scotland that won’t be allowed to be a part of the G8, so he is on his own, totally alone in the police station while everyone else is out doing riots and arresting people. So when a phone call comes and says that a politician has been found dead, he is the only person in the police station, so eventually he becomes a part of the whole G8 thing. But it was such a big week, such an amazing week. I just couldn’t see a way not to write about it.
/// I spoke to a friend of mine, who is a big Rebus fan, and I asked him if there were any questions that Rebus enthusiasts would like answered, any loose ends or something like that. He said I should ask you what happened to Rebus’s daughter.
– Yes, that is a good question. In the first book, Rebus has a daughter. I mean, when I wrote the first book, I was a student, and I didn’t have any kids, I wasn’t even married at that time. Having invented this daughter for him, I thought she has to stick around. (There is a momentary silence, really the first one during our chat.)
My youngest son was born disabled. He can’t walk and he can’t talk and he can’t feed himself and he has seizures and he has got visual problems and all kinds of problems. As he was being diagnosed, and we were talking to doctors and meeting specialists, I was writing Black and Blue and all the anger and frustrations and questions I felt got channelled into that book. Come the very next book, The Hanging Garden, I discovered that my son might never walk. So I decided that Rebus’s daughter should not walk either, so I put her in a wheelchair, she was in a car accident and is in a wheelchair. Afterwards, I felt really embarrassed about it because I thought that was very petty and small minded of me to do that to my own fictional character. Just because I was feeling bad, he had to feel bad as well. So then she disappeared from the books for years. She has moved back to England with her mum, and she is walking again I think, she’s recovered from the car crash. But there is no need for her to be in the story. I haven’t recently found a story that needed her to be there so she is not there. But in the final book of the series, which is next book, we’ll have to tie up a lot of loose ends, a lot of characters from previous books will have to come back in, so we will find out what is happening to them.
/// So, what comes after Rebus?
– Phheeww… I don’t know. I don’t even know what the final book is going to be about. I haven’t thought about it. Maybe he retires and Shiboan, his colleague, becomes the main detective, maybe we go back in time and talk about his early years as a cop. When we first meet him, in the first novel, he has already been a cop for 15 years. That’s 15 years we don’t know about. Maybe time can stand still and he just keeps on going. I don’t know. The Scottish Parliament, a member of the Scottish Parliament, who is a fan of the books, recently asked a question (in parliament), ‘Can we change detectives retirement age so Rebus can keep going?’ The only reason I’ll stop writing about him is he hits 60. He lives in real time, and next year he is 60, and when you reach that age in Scotland, you stop being a detective. So if they change the retirement age in the real world, he can continue to work, but I don’t think the Justice Minister will do that just for one fictional character.
/// You received the Crime Writers Association’s Gold Dagger for the best crime novel in 1997. Last year, an Icelandic writer, Arnaldur Indriðason, received the same prize. What does it mean to receive a prize like that?
– I think it shows the strength of crime fiction worldwide at the moment. It is dealing with the real contemporary world and real contemporary problems and sometimes I think the contemporary novel doesn’t do that. The contemporary novel is about an individual who might be having problems, but it is not about the wider society or the big moral questions.
/// Do you try to follow the whole genre?
– I try to. Especially young writers, people who are just starting out, I try to read as much of that as I can. The pleasure for me… the two things that are very pleasing is: one, crime fiction is beginning to be taken seriously by academics, by universities, by prizes, by critics. The reason for that is that crime fiction is getting good. The books are getting better and they are dealing with proper serious issues. They are becoming more literary. The second thing is that so many young writers are being attracted to crime fiction. They don’t see a distinction between literary fiction and crime fiction. A lot of writers, a few years ago, would have been trying to write literary novels, and now they are writing crime fiction and that is great, because that means the genre will keep going. The death of crime fiction was announced in 1935 when a critic decided that Agatha Christie had done everything you could do, you know, the narrator was the killer, everybody was a killer or nobody was a killer. She has done everything he said, and that is the end of the crime novel. But no, because the crime novel reinvents itself to take account of what we are scared of in our particular age. At the moment we are scared of terrorism, religious intolerance, we are scared of asylum seekers and outsiders who may come and disrupt the fabric of our society as we see it. There is a lot of fear out there and crime fiction lets us explore the things that we are scared of and ask ourselves the question, should we be afraid of them?
/// There is a sort of a running theme in this genre, relating to the characteristics of these detectives…
– Yeah, yeah, yeah… That might sound like a cliché, the idea of the loner detective who has got a drinking problem. But it is because a lot of cops are like that. A lot of good detectives… the reason they are good detectives is because they have pushed away everything else in their life. The job is their life, and they drink a lot to forget some of the shit they have seen during the day. They can’t go home and tell their families about the rapes and the murders and overdoses they’ve dealt with, so they bottle everything up and keep it all inside and become distant from their family and friends. Then their marriage breaks up, and their friendships break up, and the only thing they’ve got is the job and other cops who will understand. I know a lot of good detectives who are bad social beings, they can’t socialise. The reason it is a cliché is because it is true.
/// Do you have a favorite detective other than Rebus?
I’ve got a few. More writers than detectives, I don’t always read a lot of the serial characters. I always read James Elroy’s books when they come out. Lawrence Block’s books when they come out. There is a Scottish writer called Denise Mina, which I really like, she has written four of five books so far. There is a writer who lives in Japan, who is actually English, called David Peace, who writes Elroy-influenced crime novels based in England, but is just about to start a series set in contemporary Japan, which I think will be very interesting. In translation I try to read as much as I possibly can, the problem is that I don’t read any foreign languages. But I try to read as much as I can. But there is just not enough time to read all the books in the world. Maybe when I finish with Rebus and I retire, I can just sit back and read.
/// Be a critic?
Ooohh! I can be critic.
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!