‘Crime fiction is about social inequality’ 

IAN RANKIN TO PRAKASH KARAT: There are various ways Rebus can come back. Photo: R. Ravindran  

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, with the help of the British Council, for a conversation between the writer and his fan in Chennai on January 26, 2010. Like a Rankin novel with multiple plotlines that encompass many ideas, the discussion covered subjects from crime fiction writing to politics in India.

The full transcript of the conversation:

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 or 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 trade, 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. But a lot of friends of mine who didn’t go to university – very close friends – went looking for jobs.

By the mid-Seventies, the coalmines 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.

I remember saying to my parents, ‘I’m going to university to study English,’ and they thought if you went to university you would study a career – to be a doctor or a lawyer. They said, ‘What will you do with an English degree?’ I said, ‘Teach,’ though what I really wanted to do was write. From a very early age, I wanted to write.

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 wanted to write about contemporary Scotland, contemporary Edinburgh, some of the problems and the social issues we had, the politics, the economy, everything that went to make up this country. I could only think of two characters that could have a go at doing that. One would be a journalist and one would be a detective. A detective can interview the politicians and the people who run the commercial enterprises, the people who run the country. And also he has access to all the different layers down to the unemployed, the disenfranchised, the disaffected in a way the journalist doesn’t. People don’t need to speak to journalists. If a police officer wants to speak to you, you better speak to him. So I decided on a detective, knowing nothing about the police and not having an interest in detective fiction.

So I wrote to the Chief of Police in Edinburgh and said: ‘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. So that was quite worrying for me, because I thought I don’t want to become 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 enterprise, the gangs. That comes as a surprise to many people, who don’t know about 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. I had arrived in 1978 aged 18. To me it was a big, confusing, complex, cold place. I had grown up in an almost tribal environment. Everybody in my hometown knew everybody else. There was an uncle and aunt two houses away, an uncle and aunt over the back wall….you know, surrounded by family and friends and everybody had much the same jobs and everybody knew each other. Suddenly, I’m in this big city, half a million people, seems huge to me. Tiny compared to Indian cities, completely tiny, but seemed huge to me. So to make sense of that, I began to write about it.

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. Oxfam, the charity…its first work on U.K. soil was in Edinburgh. Again nobody was talking about it, the politicians didn’t seem to be doing anything about it. So I thought this other Edinburgh that I see, that the tourist and the visitor don’t see…because, you are correct. When you arrive in Edinburgh, if you arrive in the centre, its almost like Disneyland. You know, there are monuments, museums, the castle, the history, the tradition…

Karat: The old town…

Rankin: Yes, it’s all there in a very small space. 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 that 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 differences in Edinburgh, the way Edinburgh was changing over time. I couldn’t see how the city could change and the main character 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: But with the retirement age now everywhere going up to 65…

Rankin: May be go up to 65 or 70, I know (laughs). Well, this is a funny thing, because there’s a member of the Scottish Parliament who’s a big fan of my books, and she asked a question of the Justice Minister. She said: ‘Can we change the retirement age of cops in Scotland so Mr. Rankin’s fictional character can continue to work?’ And I’ve never had so much hate mail from real-life serving police officers who didn’t want to stay an extra five years on the job, thank you very much, just so this fictional character could continue to work. No, Rebus can come back as a civilian to work in a small unit in Edinburgh which really exists, which looks at old, unsolved cases. It’s staffed by four officers, three of them are retired, one is a serving officer. Rebus would be perfect for that.

Karat: As a consultant…

Rankin: Yes, it’s a very small, tight-knit thing, where you work as a civilian but you work in the main police HQ. So ironically, in my latest book, The Complaints, Malcolm Fox works in the same building as Rebus. Rebus is there somewhere just behind the scenes. The other option, of course, is that Rebus might end up being investigated by Malcolm Fox for some past misdemeanour that’s hidden in his files somewhere. Or Siobhan [Clarke], Rebus’ colleague, can be the main detective in the books and Rebus as a civilian, retired, can help her out by doing the dirty work.

Karat: That’s the next thing I wanted to ask you. Siobhan is one of the most attractive characters in the books. So I imagine she’ll also have to be brought back.

Rankin: I would like to write more books about her because, having invented Rebus, I then felt he’s very unlike me. He’s a different generation, and he’s got a very black-and -white sense of the world, just being good and evil, bad guys and good guys, and no grey areas in between. I needed to invent a younger cop, Siobhan, to be my voice, my mouthpiece to help the arguments with Rebus, and say, ‘look actually the world is more complicated than that, things have changed.’ Because he is a bit of a dinosaur. He and Cafferty, the villain who runs Edinburgh, represent old ways of doing things. He’s not very computer literate, he’s not very technologically minded, he still operates like an old-fashioned cop with a network of informers, using instinct and breaking a few rules along the way.

Karat: I suspect that you’re not finished with Rebus. In The Complaints, you’ve brought in Malcolm Fox, and I find echoes of Rebus in him. He lives alone…

Rankin: I tried hard not for there to be echoes of Rebus, I tried very hard ( laughs). He lives alone, he’s divorced…

Karat: He used to drink hard, but he’s stopped drinking now…

Rankin: True, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t listen to music. He’s very close to his family, he’s close to his father; Rebus couldn’t be close to his father who was dead before the Rebus series starts. Malcolm’s very close to his sister; Rebus didn’t have a sister to be close to. In some ways, I think Malcolm is much more open to relationships, I think he might get into a romantic relationship, he likes to have friends around him. He’s not a loner in the same way that Rebus was a loner. And so he allows me, I think, or hopefully he will allow me, to show a slightly different Edinburgh. Rebus the cynic could only see Edinburgh as a series of crime scenes. Malcolm, I think, allows a slightly different view of Edinburgh. And that would also be true if I wrote from Siobhan’s perspective. It is slightly frustrating to me that as a crime writer, my main characters tend to deal with the dark side of human conduct. They’re not meeting happy, shiny people. They’re meeting criminals, they’re meeting victims of crime and the families of victims of crime. And this affects them, affects the way they think about the world.

Karat: I’ve never been to Los Angeles or Sweden, but reading Mankell or Connelly, you get to know much more than you would even if you paid a visit to them.

Rankin: It’s true and hopefully very soon we’ll have a very thriving crime fiction scene in India. Because Indian cities are absolutely fascinating to me. And when I read the newspapers – I read several newspapers a day in India – the stories that are waiting to be told or the social issues that you could actually write about...I mean, it could be very serious things. Things like why are so many young people hanging themselves. You know, these pressures of life, and the pressures to do well at school and university, the pressure that’s on you from your family. I think the crime novel or thriller could deal with that sort of social tension, that sort of social issue in a way the literary novel might find more difficult to do.

Karat: In your books there’s always something about the contemporary situation, about politics. So what exactly are 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 wanted someone known but not a politician on the panel as well, and 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, whose wife I know very well, 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. Some people from the Green Party I’m quite close in Scotland to because I think environmentalism is a huge factor that has to be taken into every political consideration, the future of the planet.

And the books I don’t think were political in the early days, I think they began to get political when I had children. When I was a young man with no kids, I wasn’t so concerned about the future of the planet. When I got older and my children arrived, I thought I should be concerned about the future of the planet. And writers don’t change the world, writers can’t change things, politicians have a chance of changing things. Because I know a lot of politicians in the U.K. read my books, I will put in a political context or a political subtext to tell them, ‘look, I think this is interesting, this is something you should focus on or be interested in.’ But hopefully, I’m not preaching. I mean, I’m not on the soapbox, I’m not an essayist. I’m writing entertainment. If the books don’t entertain, then the message is never going to get across anyway.

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.

Karat: ( laughs)

Rankin: I am never sure with P.D. James. If her politics 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 crossbencher, 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 UK, may be not a crime writer but 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. To the right politically. That is an interesting distinction perhaps.

Karat: Menkell is not right-wing.

Rankin: No, he is not. In fact, the most famous crime novels to come out from Sweden were of the previous generation. They were called the Martin Beck novels. They were 10 of them, written by the husband and wife team called Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall. They were in Stockholm in the Sixties and Seventies. And they were Marxists, they were card-carrying Marxists, Marxist philosophers and Marxist thinkers who happened to write a series of books to show the changes taking place in Swedish society, not always for the better. I think you could read their novels and you wouldn’t get a sense of their politics because they don’t, they don’t brandish it. It’s just there in the sub-text of the books. It’s why they write the kind of books they write. I only came across their books very recently. I read Menkell before I read them. But they are very interesting books.

Karat: You have been in India now for a few days. Do you think that 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 very basic human nature – it’s to do with greed, it’s to with a sense of injustice, to do with other people having things that you want, a sense of grievance that something’s happened at work. All kinds of reasons why people do bad things to each other.

That’s why 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, such as it was, to break down. And for people to start fighting each other for food and looting. And that’s what crime fiction tells us. It says you need to be educated to read books. But no matter how educated you are, you’ve just come a few steps from the cave. And 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 of 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 that size, I think you can’t have a centrist approach. Different areas will have different [characteristics]. So then you’re very dependent on the people behind the scenes, not necessarily the people you see on TV, but the people working locally. So I mean, is that true? 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 the last, more than three decades. None of the national parties has been able to win elections here.

At the Centre, at the national level, 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. But 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 I think it’s up to the politicians to keep it together.

Karat: We’ve just completed 60 years as a Republic today [January 26, 2010]. 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. Still, even with the nationalists doing well, making the right decisions, being seen to be doing things, it’s still 30 to 40 per cent, somewhere around in the low 30 per cent, that say we’d like full-scale independence.

It just took a little sneeze – and the sneeze was the financial sneeze of banks. When the Royal Bank of Scotland nearly went bust, it had to be nationalised. People said, ‘Well, if Scotland had been a small, independent country, we could not have bailed out our bank.’ And the Royal Bank of Scotland is one of the biggest employers in Edinburgh. Which is why The Complaints is all about the financial problems that happened a year ago, because if the Bank had gone under, 20 per cent of the jobs in Edinburgh would have been lost. It’s a huge employer. So Edinburgh was fearful for a short time.

And it was a great over-reaction. You know, we decided that Iceland was a terrorist State ( laughs). We utilised some laws that were there to stop terrorist states to freeze bank assets, to freeze assets of Iceland so that we could be sure of getting our money back first. A slight over-reaction. Iceland was very aggrieved about that, very aggrieved.

Karat: So I hope that you’ll be back to India soon again.

Rankin: I would love to come back, I would love to bring my family and actually have a holiday. The problem with working, being on tour and working, is that I’m only getting to see a certain aspect of India. And I’m aware, vitally aware that they’re very narrow aspects, and that there’s a very much bigger country for me to explore. So hopefully, with nice long train journeys perhaps, I’m going to do some exploring next time.

Karat: As you would have realised, there is a vast cross section of people that reads your books and admires your work. I hope that you keep writing and we are able to meet you again and see you again in India.

Rankin: Well, I am very thankful to the British Council for bringing me here. You know, they have excellent libraries in all the cities that are open to people. I know that books are still expensive for large parts of the workforce and large parts of the population. I hope with the help of libraries, with the help of more middle class jobs and cheaper books, hopefully I’ll get an even wider readership the next time I come. But I want to thank you for your interest.

Karat: Thank you.

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