Rebus Gets Up to His Old Tricks | Retirement didn’t suit John Rebus and nor, it seems, did it suit his creator, Ian Rankin. Thankfully, Rebus is well and truly back on the beat in Rankin’s latest novel, and he joins the Edinburgh International Book Festival to chat about it. We even get a world exclusive reading from Rather Be the Devil, so exclusive he reads it from printed paper because they’ve not got proofs yet.
“The man who puts lorry into laureate.”
“The man who puts the lorry into laureate,” jokes Ian as he’s introduced as a laureate of Edinburgh. 2016 marks 30 years since he was first published, with next year marking 30 years of Rebus. He talks about Polygon, originally set up by students at the University of Edinburgh, who published his first book, alongside some early James Kelman.
It got him an agent. They asked if he had more and he said, “I’ve got a story about a cop.” It’s a very Beatles-cut-their-hair moment. “I had no idea how publishing worked,” continues Ian, talking through his experiences in London, but he notes that everything has moved on. “Publishing has changed. The engineering of publishing has changed.”
“Books do furnish a room,” he adds; believing that after a brief “dalliance with the devil” there’s a return to the printed book, though the online opportunities for authors have opened everything up.
“I’ve got away with it again!”
Ian’s wife is his first reader, and with his new novel she caught some slip-ups before it went to his editor. There’s a murder in the Caledonian Hotel in 1979, but they were using key cards. It’s simple things you never think of; he feels like his book’s already been edited by the time it’s sent to his editor.
It doesn’t matter whether you’ve written two, three or thirty books, “you worry this is the book where you’re going to get found out.” Then people start to say that they really like it and you think, “I’ve got away with it again!”
When it comes to writing, he draws on some quotes that stand out to him – “a book is never finished, it’s abandoned” and “every novel is the wreckage of a perfect idea”. No matter how crystalline the idea is in your head, it will never be quite equal on paper. Words are so slippery.
He batters through first drafts in 30-40 days, it’s about getting the words out and seeing if the plot makes sense. It’s a process of misdirection – “the secret of that is not knowing what the hell I’m doing.” He misdirects the reader by not planning and discovering himself. “The plot seems to know where it wants to go. You just grab on.”
“Rebus is Rebus.”
And now to the man of the night. “Rebus is Rebus,” he says. He can’t change him, though his wife did point out he smokes and drinks a lot and seems to be okay, so the new book sees his health come into question a little. But otherwise, pure Rebus.
“There’s only so much I can do with him,” he continues. He could do early books, or find new ways to approach it but he’s not thought about it too much. Times have been changing. Did you know that Police Scotland’s formation means that if there’s a murder, they have a team that drops in all over the country? The local CIDs are reduced to a secondary role. Total fiasco for crime writers. Rude on Police Scotland’s part, to be honest.
Rebus wasn’t meant to be a serial character, but he got under Ian’s skin. “He drilled into my head and refused to leave.”
He did worry that he would bring Rebus out of retirement and he wouldn’t be there. It turns out he was excited to be back and came bounding out. He laughs at the idea of young cops trying to explain Twitter to him, or eBay. He recalls being in the pub and someone caught a Pokémon that was sitting on his shoulder. “There should be a law against that.”
The hour is one that dives into Ian’s three-decade-long career, his love of Edinburgh and music, and many more fun stories and anecdotes along the way.
With Rebus about to turn 30 (or mid-sixties, whichever you fancy), Ian thinks that next year he’ll take it off, but it’s not forever. Regardless of what happens to Rebus, there’s the other main character whose going nowhere: Edinburgh. “I don’t think I’ll get sick of writing about it.”