Crime novelist Ian Rankin is celebrating the 30th anniversary of his beloved, old-school cop character Detective Inspector John Rebus in 2017. In addition to that milestone, the latest Rebus novel, Rather Be The Devil, just hit shelves in January.
Rankin stopped by EW’s SiriusXM show Off the Books to discuss Rebus’ origins — and the unexpected hitch he encountered when writing his first novel starring the character (hint: he didn’t not become a murder suspect).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Were you always a writer?
IAN RANKIN: I was. When I was a little kid I wrote comics and cartoons. I wanted to be a pop star, so I wrote lyrics for bands that didn’t exist. When I arrived at Edinburgh University I was writing poetry. And then I thought, I want to write a novel about the darker side of Edinburgh. I thought a cop would make a good character because he’s got an all-access pass to the city.
Did you know anything about cops?
I didn’t, so I went to a police station to see if they could help me with some research. And they said, “What’s your book about?” I gave them the plot of the first Rebus novel, which turned out to be almost identical to a case they were investigating. So they sat me down and grilled me. So the very first time I tried to write a crime novel, I became a suspect in a murder case.
That must have put you off your police research.
It did! A few mistakes started creeping in. A cop came up to me one day and said, “I like your books, but you make a few procedural mistakes.” And I said, “That’s because I can’t go near you guys!” So he helped me with the details. He’d say, “You should meet this lawyer, this cold-case detective, this social worker.” He took me along to the pathology department. It was a steep learning curve. But the books began to get more realistic.
Rebus reminds me a little bit of Bosch, Michael Connelly’s iconic detective.
It’s weird, isn’t it? Michael and I, we’ve known each other for years, since the start of our careers. Here we are working on either side of the Atlantic from each other, and these characters of ours…they do share a lot. You know how Bosch has that saying, “Everybody counts or nobody counts”? Rebus feels that as well. He’s a force for good. If you’re a businessperson or a politician, and you’ve broken the law because you think you can get away with it, Rebus is going to come down on you. If you’re a small-time crook who’s breaking the law just trying to get by, well, he might give you a bit of a break. He’s got an anarchist’s soul, I guess.
Rebus walks right up to the line. And sometimes he edges his toe over.
He does things I would never do. I think he’d see me as a wishy-washy liberal who’s never had to do a hard day’s work in his life. He’s my way of exploring the world. He always has been. I think the crime novel is a good way to look at some of the big problems we’ve got, moral issues, good and evil. Why does crime exist? Why does it go on existing? away. We lock people up, and crime doesn’t go away. I’m interested in that.”
In the new book, Rather Be The Devil, Rebus is working a cold case, and his old coworkers, Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox, are working a live case. Eventually, of course, the two investigations dovetail. But it’s fascinating to watch Rebus work. He’s retired. He doesn’t have a badge. He’s so old school — he’s meeting people in bars, cultivating sources.
He’s a dinosaur. He’s the last of that kind of cop. We’re getting these corporate shiny suit detectives now who can sit at desks and operate computers, but they have no idea what happens out on the street. Going into bars, talking to people, that’s how you pick up information. But as Rebus as finding, more and more in each book, that network is falling apart. Now he’s looking for the old bars, where the drinkers used to hang out, and he’s finding they’ve all turned into coffee shops and wine bars. But look: we like the old maverick, the one who does things the old-fashioned way, who knocks heads together. He’s not politically correct. And I do think there’s still a place for that kind of detective work. The former police chief of Edinburgh reviewed one of my books awhile ago in the papers and he said that he wished he had one like Rebus, one tenacious cop who just won’t let go. Because for Rebus, it’s 24/7.
For these old cops, the cases that got away—they never let them go. They say it shouldn’t get to you on a personal level, but it does. If you care about the job, you care about people, well—it’s never just a case.
I love the relationship between Rebus and his nemesis, an old gangster named Big Jer Cafferty.
Big Jer came along as an homage to Lawrence Block. There’s a character in the Matt Scudder novels named Mick Ballou, who’s an old criminal. That thing Scudder and Ballou have, where they’re almost friends but you can never tell if they’ll remain friends or end of destroying one another? There’s a bit of that with Rebus and Cafferty. Cafferty represents all the bad stuff in the world—but also the old way of doing the bad stuff. He’s not venal. He’s got a code of ethics. It might not be a code you agree with, but he’s got lines he won’t cross. The younger gangsters he’s surrounded by are much more venal. He feels himself being pushed aside as he gets older. And he starts to wonder, as we all do, “Do I still have any role to play in the world?” And Rebus is feeling the same thing. So you’re never sure: Will they become friends? Will they betray each other? It could go any way. I never know when I start a new book whether they’ll both still be alive at the end or not.