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Ian Rankin - The Hero is Tired PDF Print
Monday, 13 December 2010

The Hero is Tired

An interview by Corinne Naidet,

helped by Marie-Anne Lucas for the translation


exit music ian rankinIan Rankin's character John Rebus only has a few days left before him. He does not suffer from an incurable disease, nor is he likely to be murdered by one of his many enemies, but in Exit Music (Editions du masque, 2010), he is about to retire. Ten days before the fateful date, Rebus and his team are faced with a new investigation : a Russian poet who opposed his country's government has be found beaten to death in a car park. Is it a political crime, an act of revenge, or a villainous murder?

 Still very rebellious, Rebus turns his hierarchy against him and is therefore suspended against all expectations. But they should have known that this cop was tenacious : with the help of his dear colleague Shioban Clarke, he is going to do his utmost to reveal the truth. All the more so because his personal enemy Ger Cafferty has just been attacked and is struggling between life and death.

This, then, is the last book featuring the quick-tempered yet endearing cop, who has been carrying us for twenty years and seventeen volumes through the streets of his favourite city, Edinburgh. The novels have changed over time, from standard procedures to more socially engaged stories, in which Rebus not only gives us details on an investigation, but also on the state of a society whose various sectors he is familiar with. Yet, that does not prevent the reader from enjoying Ian Rankin's skilfully crafted plots and their several twists and turns.

Exit Music is no exception : the Scottish writer offers us a dynamic and eventful narration, contrasting with his character's growing melancholy and nostalgia. But this music lover perfectly knows that "It's only rock'n'roll"!!!

Ian Rankin has kindly accepted to answer our questions, for the French release of Exit Music.

We would like to thank Marie Caroline Aubert, his French publisher, who has made this interview possible.



Europolar: John Rebus appears in sixteen novels. What do you think are the pros and cons of having a recurrent character, above all on such a long period?

Ian Rankin: Well, the first Rebus novel was published in 1987 and the 17th in 2007, and he lives through these years in real-time. This allowed me to explore how Scotland and Edinburgh changed within this period. Rebus, too, changes as the series progresses. We see him age, become world-weary, fail i9n his attempts to make the world a safer place. We watch his whole life unfold. This would not have been possible in a single book. As for the 'cons' of writing a series... I really haven't found many! Every theme I have wanted to explore has been containable within crime novels set in Edinburgh.

Eur: When you invented John Rebus, were you looking for a truly realistic character or for an ideal, dreamlike/perfect cop ?

IR: When I invented Rebus I had no idea he was going to exist for more than one single book. He was a means of telling the story, a way of leading the reader through the narrative. He was quite two-dimensional, I think. After 3 or 4 books, I felt I was really getting to know him as a complex, three-dimensional human being.

Eur: You often say that you wanted to talk about Rebus as one talks about a city, such as Edinburgh. Is that why Rebus' physical appearance is never described?

IR: I like my readers to give shape to my characters - they paint a face on Rebus, and they do the same thing with Siobhan. I see inside these characters' heads; I don't know what they look like. I am inside them, looking out.

Eur: Edinburgh is also one of the main subjects. Why use crime fiction codes to talk about this city?

IR: Edinburgh is a Jekyll and Hyde city. The city the tourists see is only one part of a complex whole. Behind the wonderful architecture lie real social problems. The crime novel allows me to discuss these two cities: the city of wealth and taste, and the city of the disenfranchised and criminal.

Eur: It seems that your first novel with Rebus was built up only in order to lead him into the library - a former courthouse - in the end, and to describe all the old Edinburgh...

IR: Edinburgh is full of wonderful settings. Whenever I discover a part of Edinburgh that is new to me, I like to share it with readers. As a postgraduate student, I was give a tour of the tunnels beneath the library. Perfect for a chase-scene, I thought!

Eur: Do places leave their mark on / influence writers ?

IR: The best crime fiction gives the reader a real sense of place - Chandler's Los Angeles, Montalban's Barcelona, the Paris of Leo Malet, the Stockholm of Wahloo and Sojwal. These authors were fascinated by their cities. Those cities became playgrounds were the authors could explore with child-like fascination.

Eur: Let's put it the other way round: do writers leave their mark on / have an influence on places? You speak of Edinburgh as a "schizophrenic city", like Jekyll and Hyde.

IR: Authors can leave their mark on a city. People can now take a 'Trainspotting' tour of Irvine Welsh's Edinburgh. Fans in Stockholm seek out locations from Stieg Larsson's books. This is because readers' interpretations of a city can be changed by he books they read. Edinburgh is a city of writers. The railway station (Waverley) is named after a novel by Sir Walter Scott. The Scott Monument is a huge landmark in the city centre. Statues commemorate Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle. There is even a Writers' Museum!

Eur: You say about your second novel, in 1987, that you were surprised it was classed as a crime fiction novel: within which literary genre did you think you had written?

IR: Scotland has no tradition of crime fiction, but there are plenty of literary novels about tough guys (most of them set in Glasgow), and plenty of dark, Gothic psychological thrillers. This is the sort of book I felt I was writing.

Eur: Let's focus on your first books. In Knots and Crosses there is no allusion to music, though you love it. In your following books you mention hosts of groups and pieces of music you like. Why such an evolution? Or why hadn't you talked about it earlier?

IR: In the first two or three Rebus books, Rebus listens to some jazz and even classical music. But other crime writers were doing the same thing: Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse likes classical music; John Harvey's Inspector Resnick likes jazz. I wanted Rebus to be different, so that no one would say I was copying these other writers. I liked rock music, so I decided he would like it too.

Eur: On the contrary there are many references to literature, particularly to Crime and Punishment, and I noticed that some of the titles were constructed similarly, as with Black and Blue for example. Did Dostoievski's novel influence you?

IR: I was a student when I wrote the first Rebus book. I spent a lot of time reading literature and discussing literary theory. There is probably far too much of 'me' in that first book. Rebus should not be reading so many books. The plot is even resolved because a professor of literary theory at the university contacts Rebus. By book two, I had a clearer sense of Rebus as a character whose life was distinct from my own. He had become his own man. A few of my books are influenced by particular novels or novelists. 'Black and Blue' owes a debt to the James Ellroy who wrote 'White Jazz'. 'The Black Book' is influenced by a Gothic 19th Century Scottish novel called 'Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner'.

Eur: Another reference to a writer and some novels : Rebus seems bound to have to face the evil personified as an enemy, like Jekill and Hyde, Holmes and Moriarty. In your books, there are Rebus and Ger Raferty (featured in The Black Book). Is it a tribute or is it necessary for the structure of the novel?

IR: Rafferty first appeared as a minor character in book three (Tooth and Nail). I found him interesting, and realised I could do a lot more with him. Cafferty represents all the malaise associated with crime. But he is also similar to Rebus in many ways. We are never sure if the two of them will destroy one another or become best friends.

Eur: So you refer quite often to other novels but also to their characters, and you seem to enjoy it. The reader is introduced to a Brian Holmes, a Mr Watson, a Mr Hyde and even a Mr H. In fact there is an evolution, for example from Mr Hyde to Mr H. in Black and Blue (1987). Is it also a way to play with / entertain your readership?

IR: I do enjoy playing games with the readers. There are lots of literary in-jokes and references in the books, but hopefully they do not get in the way of the story, and it doesn't really matter if the reader sees every reference. Recently a reader spotted a quote in one of my books which I had taken from the Hollywood film MASH. The book was written s long ago, I cannot now remember if the reference was intended or accidental!

Eur: Now let's turn to the themes. Evil seems to me to be the main subject of your books, and I mean evil in its biblical definition. You say, quoting the Book of Job "God gave the world to the wicked". Is it your own vision of society? And, speaking about religion, are you among those who think that the Bible was the first crime novel ever written?

IR: I find it hard to think of The Bible as a novel. It is a series of stories and songs, some more successful than others! Evil is an interesting word. I find it relatively easy to define an act of evil, but more difficult to call a human being evil. We are complex creatures, and there are many reasons why we become involved in criminal acts. Most criminals are not 'evil' - there have been very few monsters in human history. I am fascinated by the line that we cross when we carry out a crime. I am also interested in the moral codes that stop most of us from crossing that line.

Eur: In A Question of Blood, one of the characters says "Bad men do what good men dream". Is it one of the reasons why you write crime novels?

IR: Bad men do what good men dream - that is actually a quote from a psychiatrist. I forget the man's name but I interviewed him for a TV documentary about evil. I suppose most of us, at one time or another have wished that someone were dead, or at least punished in some way. The crime novel is interested in that 'breaking point', the point when someone commits a crime, because the crime will change their life and the lives of those around them forever.

Eur: Since we are dealing with quotations, let's think about the quotation from Yeats in A Question of Blood « I do not hate those I fight, I do not like those I protect ». This deserves a comment.

IR: Regarding Yeats, I suppose most cops have wondered about the job that they do. The guilty often go free, the innocent often continue to suffer. There are few 'winners' when it comes to crime.

Eur: In Dead Souls, it is said that « everybody has a breaking point somewhere ». John Rebus is the witness to those breaking points. To make it clearer, I think that this is what you want to talk about, and a policeman makes an ideal witness.


IR: Yes, and Rebus, too, has his breaking point. There is a scene in 'Black and Blue' where he has been fighting his best friend. He is down on his knees, bloodied and weeping. At that moment, he is very close to his breaking point. But he is also a professional voyeur (as are novelists). He examines people's lives, seeking motives, secrets and lies. He has access to every life and every layer of society, and this makes the detective the perfect fictional character.

Eur: The novels with Rebus encompass twenty years of Scottish history, and I feel that atmospheres are becoming increasingly darker, like in The Naming of The Dead. It's getting worse and worse.

IR: Scottish society is not really getting worse. People are generally better off than they were in 1987. The drug problem is not such a problem. People are healthier. Smoking has been banned from bars and cinemas. The Scottish Parliament gives us more say in contemporary political and social life. But crime doesn't go away. This is what frustrates Rebus. He locks up one 'bad guy' and another fills the vacuum. He has also come to realise that there are bad guys who remain almost untouchable: the corporations and politicians....

Eur: I'd like to ask you a question on writing and the structure : in many of your novels, the strength of the book is to be found in the intermingling of various stories. Could you explain us how you write / your method for writing?

IR: I usually begin a book with theme I want to explore. A central crime will allow me to do this, but then other sub-plots begin to emerge. I'm not sure were they come from. It is as if the novel has a sense of where it is going. It will tell me which characters and stories are interesting and should be explored further. During the first draft of the book, I may not know the identity of the murderer. This places me in the role of detective - like Rebus, I need to follow the motives, characters and clues.

Eur: One last point: Rebus and women. First, you show that a cop can't have long-lasting relationships, with the example of Rebus but also Holmes and the lady of the library. Then why did you put Shioban Clarke in Rebus' way?

IR: Siobhan has learned a lot of lessons from Rebus, not always in a positive way. Like him, she becomes obsessed by the job, and this gives her no space in her life for close friendships and lovers. It is a problem with cops in real-life: relationships sometimes break down because 'the job' gets in the way. Also, of course, the reader often does not want to hear about the main characters' personal lives - they want the hero to focus on solving the mystery, and not have to go home to eat dinner at the kitchen-table!

Eur: I haven't read the last one (maybe there is a fatal ending ?!). You decided to let Rebus retire at the age of sixty. But (unfortunately), many European countries are postponing the age of retirement.... might Rebus come back???

IR: Yes, Rebus probably will come back. As a civilian, it would be possible for him still to work for the police. Maybe that's what happens...

Last Updated ( Saturday, 29 January 2011 )
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