Ian Rankin in conversation with Prakash Karat about the Rebus novels, new trends in crime fiction writing, politics in India, and more. Full interview linked here.
Ian Rankin is the best-selling writer of crime fiction in the United Kingdom, accounting for 10 per cent of all its crime book sales. The Edinburgh-based Scottish writer is best known for his 17-novel series featuring Inspector Rebus, which has been translated into 22 languages and won him a worldwide following. Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who studied political science at Edinburgh University, describes himself as an “avid Rankin fan.” He has read every Rankin novel and has impressive knowledge about recent trends in crime fiction. The Hindu arranged for a conversation between the writer and his fan in Chennai, with the help of the British Council. Like a Rankin novel with multiple plotlines that encompass many ideas, the discussion covered subjects from crime fiction writing to politics in India.
Prakash Karat: It’s a pleasure to meet you. I have read all the books in which [Inspector] Rebus figures. What accounts for the phenomenal popularity of Rebus?
Ian Rankin: I wish I knew. Because then I could pass the information on to other people. The books weren’t successful in the beginning. The first book came and went and it was hardly reviewed by anybody and sold very few copies. It wasn’t put forward for any prizes.
Karat: That was Knots and Crosses.
Rankin: Knots and Crosses. It didn’t even get shortlisted for the Best First Crime Novel of the Year Award. Then I brought Rebus back. That was meant to be just the one book. It was never meant to be a series. But I brought him back because I got intrigued by his character. I found him quite a complex individual with a lot of problems and of course that makes somebody interesting to write about. But the books were still very unsuccessful right up until Black and Blue, which was I think book number eight or nine in the [Rebus] series and something like my 14th or 15th novel.
It just clicked. It sold four times as many copies as previous books. Word of mouth helped. A lot of booksellers were very good. People would come in and say, ‘I’m looking for a crime novel.’ ‘Oh, have you tried this guy’ or ‘If you like Ruth Rendell, you may like Ian Rankin’ and that was useful as well.
And the books became better and better as I learnt the craft. So the books did get better. So I guess all the early novels were an apprenticeship and the apprenticeship was leading to Black and Blue.
Karat: Like Rebus, you belong to the coal-mining country or working-class Scotland. How much of that has pervaded your books?
Rankin: A fair amount, I think. Rebus’s background or upbringing is very important. It is what made him. He’s a self-made man. Unlike me, he didn’t go to college or university. He represents the way my life could have gone. My parents were working class. My dad worked in a dockyard. My mum worked in a factory canteen serving up food. They never owned their own house. They never had a car. They didn’t do much travelling. And I was the first member of my family to go to university.
By the mid-Seventies, the coal mines were finished, mining was uneconomic. So the time we grew up in Cardenden was depressed and a lot of people were out of work. And about the only jobs that were available were with the police or the armed forces. Rebus does both. He starts off leaving school at 15 and joining the armed forces and then when he leaves under a cloud, he eventually gets taken on as a police officer. So maybe that is me saying this was the alternative life waiting for me, if I hadn’t been the black sheep of the family and gone to university.
Karat: You introduced Rebus and policing in Knots and Crosses. How did you get interested in police affairs or police work?
Rankin: I wasn’t interested in crime fiction. I am the only crime writer I know who wasn’t a fan of crime fiction before I became a crime writer. What interested me is what a police officer could do – the access that was available to him. I wrote to the Chief of Police in Edinburgh, ‘I’m writing my first novel and it’s about a detective and can you help me?’ He sent me to a police station in Edinburgh, where two detectives were waiting. Sadly for me, it turned out that the plot of my first novel, Knots and Crosses, was very similar to a real crime they were investigating at that moment. So in my first foray in research I became a suspect in a murder inquiry! The first Rebus novel I did research. Two, three, four, I didn’t do any research. And it wasn’t until a detective came up to get a book signed, at a book shop in Edinburgh, and said, ‘Ian, I like your books but you make some procedural mistakes,’ that I started to get the details right. He became a friend and he became a good source of information.
Karat: I studied at Edinburgh University in the late Sixties. In your books, Edinburgh is so different from the popular perception of being a picture postcard city. You write about the underbelly of Edinburgh — the criminal enterprises, the gangs. That comes as a surprise to many people who don’t know Edinburgh. Was Edinburgh like this some 30 or 40 years ago, or has it become like this now?
Rankin: That was part of my original intention. I started writing stories, poems and eventually novels about Edinburgh to try and make sense of the city. This was at a time in the early Eighties, when Edinburgh had the worst per capita problem with heroin and AIDS/HIV in Europe. But nobody was discussing it, nobody was writing about it, and nobody seemed to be trying to change the situation. Edinburgh also had housing estates that were so run down. The politicians didn’t seem to be doing anything about it. When you arrive in Edinburgh, if you arrive in the centre, it’s almost like Disneyland. You know, there are monuments, museums, the castle, the history, the tradition…Old Edinburgh, tourist Edinburgh, is ringed by problem areas that the tourist never has to see. What I really wanted to say to people was that Edinburgh was a more complex city than you think, and that it’s a city that despite appearances has a lot of social issues and problems. And again, crime fiction is perfect for discussing those problems.
Karat: Crime fiction as a genre is now doing very well. And you and Henning Mankell in Sweden and Michael Connelly in the United States have been at the forefront of this new breed of crime fiction writers over the last two decades. Is crime fiction being taken more seriously?
Rankin: It is being taken more seriously than it was previously. But it is still the case in some cultures, and the U.K. is one of them, there is still a certain literary snobbery. A lot of people won’t read crime fiction, because they think it means Miss Marple…it means obscure poisons used to kill the cardinal in the billiard room. I’m afraid crime fiction has moved a long way from there now. What I like about crime fiction is the sense of place. You are right to mention Michael Connelly and Henning Mankell. If I want to find out about contemporary Sweden or contemporary Los Angeles, I will go to these writers. Not to the literary writers, but the crime writers.
The situation has changed in perceptions about crime fiction, because crime writers are writing better and better books that deal with serious issues and big moral questions. The quality of writing has improved since the early days of crime fiction and I think the moral core of the books is stronger than ever. So I think because better writers are writing crime fiction, doing it with more serious intent, it is being taken seriously. You can now study my novels in high school in Scotland. There are various literary courses at the universities in the U.K and beyond where you can study crime fiction. This is a good example of how the situation has changed. There is a Professor of English at the St. Andrews University who has written a book about my books. Thirty years ago, when I went as a young man to the University of St. Andrews, in my final year at high school, to ask them what modern literature would I study here as a student, the answer — straight-faced, no irony — was John Milton. Paradise Lost! That was modern. Now you can study the novels of Ian Rankin. So there have been changes, and the changes in academia will eventually translate into changes in popular perception. And then the prizes will start to consider — the Booker Prize, the Pulitzer in America — will start to consider crime fiction.
Karat: I’ve read a book on Black and Blue, written by Gill…
Rankin: Gill Plain! The very person I’m thinking of!
Karat: Oh I see, right (laughs). Are we going to have to get used to a world without Rebus now that you’ve retired him?
Rankin: I don’t know. I mean the Rebus series did something fairly unusual in crime fiction – allowed the detective to age in real time. You get very little sense that Poirot or Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes or many previous characters in crime fiction get older or learn from the experiences, learn from the cases they’re involved in. I knew that Rebus would be changed by every case he worked on and also I wanted him to live in real time, so that I could trace the way Edinburgh was changing over time. I couldn’t see how the city could change and the main characters remain exactly the same. So come 2007, when he was 60, he had to retire, because that is the retirement age for detectives in Scotland. This was problematic for me because I didn’t feel I’d finished with him, and he didn’t want to retire. But he had to. I’ve since learned that there are various ways that he can come back.
Karat: In your books there’s always something about the contemporary situation, about politics. So what exactly is your politics?
Rankin: Well, a television interviewer tried to find out a while ago. I was going to go on a show called ‘Question Time,’ which has mostly politicians on the panel and people ask them questions. They interviewed me for an hour before the show to try and discover my politics. And they said, ‘It’s very difficult Mr. Rankin, very difficult. In some ways you’re liberal, in some ways you’re slightly to the right, and in others you’re quite far to the left.’ That’s how I feel; like a lot of people, I think, I slide between issues and I slide between parties. I think it’s possible to like one MP and think that you agree with them but you don’t agree with their party. I guess I’m independent if I’m anything, and I want to feel independent. But the closest friendships I have in politics are with the Left, from Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, to Alistair Darling, who’s currently in charge of the Treasury, who lives very near me in Edinburgh, to the local MPs and MSPs [Members of the Scottish Parliament]. But I also know liberal MPs and MSPs, and one or two on the right, one or two Conservatives, not too many.
Karat: I think a good crime fiction writer cannot be right-wing. All of them deal with real problems in society and being right-wing, I imagine, would make them look at issues in purely black-and-white terms.
Rankin: I think you would be surprised. I am never sure with P.D. James. If her politics is to the right, centre-right, I think. She’s in the House of Lords. Ruth Rendell sits in the House of Lords on the Labour benches. P.D. James, I think, is a cross-bencher, which means she isn’t affiliated to one particular party. In America, I know several crime writers who are quite right-wing, I mean several Republicans. James Ellroy, I think you would find if you talk to him, he would be Republican.
Karat: He likes your books (laughs).
Rankin: I know he likes my books (laughs). But you don’t need to like the person’s politics to like his books! You don’t need to like the writer sometimes to like his books. In the U.K., a thriller writer like Jeffery Archer is a Conservative politician. And Frederick Forsyth, very famously, is also of the right.
Karat: But they are thriller writers.
Rankin: You are right, thriller writers. Thriller writers in the U.S. tend to be right-wing. That is an interesting distinction perhaps.
Karat: You have been in India now for a few days. Do you think there is a serious readership for crime fiction? You have met quite a lot of people in different places now.
Rankin: Well, I would say there is. I have had very good audiences, very passionate audiences who not only know my work but know the work of my contemporaries and of course other writers from round the world. There is now a burgeoning crime fiction scene, there are young writers in India beginning to write crime novels. I have picked up a couple of them that I will read when I get home. I think crime fiction is almost like a product of capitalism. It’s about social inequality. Why do people do bad things to each other? Much of the time, it’s economic. It’s to do with basic human nature — greed, a sense of injustice, other people having things that you want, a sense of grievance that something’s happened at work. That’s what I like about crime fiction specifically. It tells us that the civilised world is just a veneer, a very thin veneer. And the things that tie us together as a society can be torn apart at any second — torn apart by domestic terrorism, by international terrorism, by uprisings, by disasters that are human-made like the earthquake in Haiti. It took only a few days for the veneer to break down, and for people to start fighting each other for food and looting. We do have the potential for goodness, the potential to do wonderful things. But we all have the potential to do bad things. That’s why I am fascinated by Jekyll and Hyde. All my books are really about reworking the basic theme of human beings containing within them the ability to do terrible things as well as good things.
Karat: Do you have anything to ask me about Indian politics? Or the Left in India?
Rankin: Indian politics, I’m only just beginning to scratch the surface. It’s such a huge country. I have been asking people — there must be distinction between national politics and regional politics. Because with a country this size, I think you can’t have a centrist approach. Different areas will have different [characteristics]. Then you’re very dependent on the people working locally. Do you have a popular grassroots approach?
Karat: There is a very strong trend working for a more federal India. Because the real India is in the various States. We have a wide variety of regional politics and regional parties. Here in Tamil Nadu, for example, the governments have been run by regional parties for more than four decades. None of the national parties has been able to win elections here. At the centre, you have to have coalition governments because the regional parties also have a lot of clout in their own States. The Left has its own spheres of influence; we have three State governments. Therefore, it’s become more decentralised in one sense. At the same time, it is still, according to us, too highly centralised and we want more decentralisation, more autonomy for the different States. It’s ongoing work, to try and restructure the Indian state.
Rankin: What I’m very impressed by is that India actually works. Because you’ve got different cultures, different religions, people of different political colour, all trying to work in this huge vibrant country. As technology comes in, as the middle class becomes established, a much broader middle class than used to exist, I think some vast changes are under way in this country and it’s up to the politicians to keep it together.
Karat: We’ve just done 60 years as a Republic today. We have a democratic system which works, at least. We’ve made it work in these last 60 years. I think that’s the biggest achievement.
Rankin: That’s fantastic. Scotland has just had devolution for 10 years. We’ve got a certain amount of autonomy from the government in London. And we’ve got a nationalist party in power for the first time ever in Scotland, which would very much like to take Scotland forward to full-scale independence. I mean, that’s the whole reason a nationalist party exists. People in Scotland seem to be very happy with the way the nationalists are running the country as part of a devolved government. They don’t seem to be so happy with the notion of independence.