Can you inspire the next Rebus?

MARK NICHOLLS Crime writer Ian Rankin brings a shade of the darker side of life to the UEA Literary Festival. Mark Nicholls apprehended him en route to a familiar haunt.


I catch Ian Rankin on his mobile. A vision of a man strolling purposefully through the darkening streets of Edinburgh comes to mind.

He tells me he's on his way to the Oxford Bar to meet two literary contacts from America.

Well, where else would the man behind the phenomenally successful Rebus series of crime novels be going for a pint?

This is where Inspector John Rebus drinks and while he is a fictitious policeman, he works in a real police station, lives in a real street and drinks in a real pub.

And this is the attraction for Rebus/Rankin admirers: they can go to Edinburgh and absorb the locations, even take a Rebus tour and finish up with a drink at the Oxford Bar.

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Rankin may be there too.

"When I go in," he said, "I tend to sit myself out of the way at the back. They don't really want to see me, what they want is the world of Rebus."

Born in Fife in 1960, he lives with his wife Miranda and sons Jack, 12, and Kit, 10, in Edinburgh, a city he describes as "a fantastic place to write about".

For those who visit, the books take them away from the tourist spots.

"Edinburgh is not just tartan, castles and bagpipes, Rebus goes to the real Edinburgh, towards more contemporary locations with contemporary problems," he said.

Ironically, there is now a Rebus tour, which has put some of these locations on a kind of alternative tourist map for some visitors.

Rankin will be at the UEA on Monday as the renowned literary festival continues to talk about his latest Rebus novel, Fleshmarket Close.

It explores issues of asylum and immigration, incorporating the darker side of life that has underpinned Rankin's work.

An illegal immigrant is found murdered in an Edinburgh housing scheme – a racist attack, or something else entirely?

Fleshmarket Close explores what it means to a society when shared heritage is lost beneath uglier aspects of nature: greed, mistrust, violence and exploitation.

Described as a "true state of the nation novel", it is one of Rebus' most personal cases yet.

"I will be doing a bit of reading from the book and will be taking questions," explained Rankin, pausing before expanding. He likes to meet his readers and it becomes apparent why.

"It is a good opportunity to find out what the readers like: writers spend most of the year in solitary confinement, sitting in an office or room in the house with a computer and a hi-fi system and do not talk to anybody.

"But two or three years ago I was at an event and a woman asked a question. From that question I got the plot for my next novel. Readers are always coming up with ideas."

Rebus is no clean-cut hero. He's cynical, anti-social, impatient and prone to mistakes.

"There is maybe something of him in all of us," he said. "I try to make the books as realistic as possible, he is not superhuman, he is fallible and he does not always solve the case to his satisfaction. I think that makes him realistic."

Yet he has survived 16 novels, including the first, Knots & Crosses from 1987; The Black Book; Resurrection Men; and last year's A Question of Blood.

Rankin's background is intriguing too. He has worked as a grape-picker, tax collector, hi-fi journalist and sung in a punk band. The first Rebus novels were written against the backdrop of this career development pattern.

He may also touch on another subject to his UEA audience on Monday night: "about how jealous I was, as a struggling young writer, that the UEA had such a wonderful creative writing programme. I was too shy to apply to get on to the course.

"When I was trying to get started there was no support network, no-one to tell you how to do it, it was very hit and miss."

His work invariably incorporates the darker side of life, a seedy brutality.

"The dark side of life is there in the books and with the Inspector Rebus novels, all life is there," he said.

"I do not know where it comes from, I had a happy normal childhood, two parents who loved me but at an early age I was attracted to the darker side of human nature."

His other characters are hardly orthodox, with flawed or defective personalities.

"Quite a few are based on real people, some who get in the Oxford Bar, others are completely made up," he said.

Some "buy" the right to appear.

"I am involved with various charities and we sometimes do an auction with the right to be in a Rebus novel, so some are very real people."

He supports Capability Scotland, for children with special needs, organisations for the blind and other groups local to Edinburgh. His son Kit has special needs, visual problems and epilepsy.

"I have an interest in these charities going back 10 years, as a consumer and since I have been writing this means I can put something back."

Rebus lives in real time and, for the character and author, that time is rapidly running out. The detective is 56 and will have to retire at 60.

"That means he has probably got four more books in him," though Rankin quickly adds there is no guarantee that there will be four more.

In the background, there is the buzz of Edinburgh, the sounds of a gloomy September evening, though this I have to imagine on the end of the phone.

Our conversation closes with Rankin approaching the entrance to the Oxford Bar.

I picture him wandering in, ordering a drink and settling into a discreet seat, watching his people, watching the characters of a future novel.

You can see Ian Rankin at the UEA's Arthur Miller Centre on Monday, tickets £5. For more details call the box office on 01603 508050.

Among guests also appearing during the festival are Sheila Hancock (October 4), Kate Adie (November 8) and David Lodge (November 15).