Scottish author Ian Rankin was in Winnipeg last week to promote his latest Inspector Rebus thriller, Saints of the Shadow Bible, the 20th instalment featuring John Rebus since he was introduced in 1987 in Knots and Crosses. Rankin has written stand-alone novels, espionage thrillers under the pseudonym Jack Harvey -- books he says he wrote to pay the bills while lukewarm fans decided whether to embrace Rebus -- and recently two Malcolm Fox novels, featuring a new policeman working in Rebus's world.
Rankin sat down with Free Press education reporter Nick Martin to talk about his popular maverick Edinburgh policeman John Rebus -- an irascible, cranky old copper of an undetermined maybe-early 60s age Rankin recently brought back from retirement to savour Scotch, drive his superior officers batty and, quite likely, solve the crime. Too early for a wee dram of Scotland's best, but Rankin suggested a libation would be appropriate for a chat about murder and sleuthing, Fort Garry Rouge lager for him, Fort Garry Dark Ale for this interviewer.
Readers, feel free to proceed: spoilers have been redacted.
FP: Where did the name John Rebus come from?
Rankin: The name Rebus came to me very quickly. It means picture puzzle, if you look it up in the dictionary -- in the first book, he's being sent picture puzzles. I was being a smartass student, actually. I had to spend ages explaining to people what it means. It's not a Scottish name... halfway through the series, we discover Rebus has Polish roots. I (later) met a guy in Edinburgh named Joe Rebus, the only Rebus in Edinburgh -- he lives on Rankin Drive.
FP: How much time do you take coming up with names?
Rankin: You've got to keep them fairly realistic. Sometimes real people pay money to charity to be in my book. There's a woman from Ottawa (in Saints of the Shadow Bible). (Rebus's) partner Siobhan, people in Scotland know how to pronounce it... for a North American audience, is it Cy-oban? Seeban? That's the joke, she's English with a Gallic name.
FP: How many times has Rebus been suspended?
Rankin: Not that many times. Suspension is very serious -- he's been told he can't follow a case. The chief of the Edinburgh police reviewed one of my books; he said he'd like to have a Rebus on his force. There's room for one maverick, one who bends the rules. These days, there's less room for mavericks.
FP: Had you intended to leave Rebus retired? Were you under pressure from your readers?
Rankin: When he retired in 2007, I thought that was it. Malcolm Fox (the antithesis of Rebus) did OK, No. 1 in the U.K. I did one about an art heist. The publishers saw it wasn't just Rebus, readers liked Ian Rankin. One fan of the books is an MP; she stood up in Parliament and asked the justice minister to change the retirement age so I could bring him back. For five years, I wasn't writing about him, but I knew what he was doing. I'd been told about this cold-case unit, a real unit in Edinburgh (to which Rebus could be assigned). I wasn't sure his voice would still be there -- a couple of pages, he was back.
FP: Have you counted how many relationships he's messed up?
Rankin: (Laughs) all of them. There's not that many. There's a cop who becomes his boss, Gillian Templar, then there's a doctor. There's been only two. And his ex-wife, of course. I try to give him nice women, but he rejects them. People who get close to him tend to get hurt; he's very wary of letting people into his life. A lot of fans thought I'd put him in bed with Siobhan, but that wouldn't happen -- they'd never work together afterwards.
FP: Is Big Ger based on a real gangster in Edinburgh?
Rankin: He's based on three or four Glasgow gangsters -- Edinburgh's not big enough for a Mr. Big. There's some small-time crooks, some small-time players -- he's symbolic of all the bad stuff. He was never meant to be a major character when I introduced him in book three. His relationship with Rebus is very Cain and Abel, they're very similar characters... or, I guess, in literature would be Holmes and Moriarty. I like him as a character. He lives in my house in Edinburgh -- the house he lives in (in the books) is my house in Edinburgh. A psychiatrist would make good work of that one. Rebus lives in the street I lived in when I was a student.
FP: Are the pubs in the books real?
Rankin: Nearly all of them. The Gimlet, that's totally fictitious. The Oxford bar where he drinks is where I drink... a real pub. It's not the most welcoming place. The guy who owns it gets annoyed sometimes because people will walk in, take a couple of pictures and walk out again, not buy a drink. It's a mixed blessing.
Rebus's Edinburgh isn't necessarily my Edinburgh. I go to nicer places than him. I go to the theatre, opera; he'd never go there.
FP: Who is your ideal to play Rebus?
Rankin: I don't know what he looks like. I've never met any actor who's 100 per cent my idea of Rebus. I haven't watched the (two) TV series -- I don't want an actor's face taking over my head. I met Sean Connery once for dinner and a quiet drink. He said 20 years ago he'd have jumped at playing Rebus, but he's too old now. There's one actor I've seen, Brian Cox; he's actually from Dundee.
FP: How many more Rebus books will you write?
Rankin: I never know from one book to the next. I'm lucky to get six good ideas a year; when I was younger, I used to get six good ideas a day. The first draft, I make it up as I go along; I don't know who the killer is, the crime, I've got a theme I want to explore. That's why I don't teach creative writing -- I don't know how anyone does it.
FP: You're not going to tell anyone how it ends, but have you decided how it ends? Retirement? Death? Riding into the sunset?
Rankin: No. I don't think he'd die -- I'd be loath to see him die. I can't see him riding into the sunset; as long as he's alive, he'll want to investigate.