After 25 years writing at least a novel a year, and fast approaching 50, Rankin reckons it’s time to go travelling.
'Rebus hasn’t left the building. He’s just in the next room.' So author Ian Rankin explains the non-appearance of his most famous character in The Complaints. While ostensibly here to read from and talk about his latest novel, Rankin seems willing, if not desperate, to talk about anything but. And it makes for a highly enjoyable if random evening of anecdotes, revelations and trade secrets.
Backstage, the sound engineer discloses a mix-up in picking up the godfather of ‘tartan noir’ from the airport, which may or may not have put him in a less than agreeable mood. Rankin apologises for being ‘old and tired’, blaming himself for making the walk from town to Balmoral Avenue earlier in the day and knackering himself in the process.
'It’s a lot longer than I remember,' he laments to an adoring audience, many of whom look like they might know exactly what he means. Rankin is of course no stranger to Belfast, having ‘married local’, and he’s clearly at home here.
He reads an opening passage from The Complaints, which introduces new character Malcolm Fox of the Edinburgh police’s internal enquiry department. Tee-total and by the book, Fox is the near-antithesis of inspector Rebus. As Rankin he puts it, 'I didn’t want to create a Rebus-lite'. Intriguingly, as well as accepting that both characters inhabit the same fictional universe, he doesn’t rule out the prospect of the two crossing paths in future stories.
Rebus is an inevitably ubiquitous presence in Rankin’s disclosures, with horror revelations including a TV exec ‘visualising’ Robbie Coltrane in the role - the same Rebus, incidentally, who Rankin clearly describes in his novels as a reasonably buff ex-parachute regiment grunt rather than a rotund ex-member of the Comic Strip. 'Thank god that Cracker came along for Robbie,' Rankin muses.
Even more alarmingly, Rankin recounts a proposal he had from a TV production company to relocate Rebus to London and have Leslie ‘Dirty Den’ Grantham in the role of Edinburgh’s finest. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Rankin also diplomatically draws a veil of silence over John Hannah’s unseemly TV turn as the grizzled and sozzled detective.
Although Rankin himself admits that The Complaints hasn't exactly taken centre stage tonight, the audience are clearly unconcerned, lapping up his every word. A self-confessed comic book head, Rankin talks about his recent stab at writing a graphic novel, The Hellblazer story 'Dark Entries'. His revelations about the unexpectedly colossal workload are fascinating and very funny, especially when he reveals that he’s never actually met the comic’s artist, Werther Dell’Edera.
Further reminiscences include his thwarted attempt to film a Scottish Ocean’s 11 with an all star, multi-generational Scottish cast including Sean Connery and James McAvoy, only to have it optioned by an English company who 'clearly won’t be casting Connery, McAvoy or McGregor'.
Rankin is a very likeable, modest and above all interesting raconteur with a wry Presbyterian air to him. One gets the impression he dips in and out of the fame game with nonchalant alacrity. An anonymous pint in his beloved ‘Ox’ is just as edifying an experience in Rankin-world as dispensing affectionately bitchy asides about celebrity chums such as 'Sandy', who just happens to be novelist Alexander McCall Smith.
No great self-aggrandiser, Rankin sees what he does in refreshingly matter-of-fact terms. He demystifies his own writing process at every turn, giving cruel false hope to umpteen aspirants by disclosing such self-deprecating gems as: 'The plot’s the easy part - that’s just making stuff up,' or 'I can’t begin to write a novel until I have a title for it'.
He reveals that there may be more Rebus novels in the future (possibly with the old bugger coming out of retirement New Tricks-style) and even one or two more with Complaints protagonist Malcolm Fox. His love for crime fiction, (particularly American writers such as Elroy and Pelecanos), its modes, mechanisms and mores is infectious, as are his amorous inclinations for the streets and history of Edinburgh, always the most affecting character in his novels.
It’s telling also how Rankin judges good crime fiction to be more socially revelatory than literary fiction, which he cheekily describes as being 'up itself'. His admission that when he visits a new country or city he reads its crime fiction output to best glean its culture, customs and society is a compelling proposition.
Finally, Rankin announces he’s taking a break in 2010. After 25 years writing at least a novel a year (including 17 Rebus novels), and fast approaching 50, Rankin reckons it’s time to go travelling. One would hope that he doesn’t leave it too long before powering up his Mac book and digging out his notes. But, in the meantime, you wouldn’t begrudge the old boy a bit of time off for good behaviour.
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