This originally ran in the Mar/Apr 2005 edition of Crimespree
Crime Denial or Happy Landing
“You know, I’d never really read Crime Fiction until my first book was put in the “Crime Fiction” section of all the book shops. I decided if this was the section I was going to be in, perhaps I should know a bit about it. That’s not saying I’d never read a “crime fiction book.”
It starts when you’re young, really. Movies that are being talked about that your parents won’t let you go and see. A Clockwork Orange and The Godfather. Mum and Dad wouldn’t let me go, but I went to the library and there they were, free for the reading. So it started there. Adolescent strategy.
Of course, there was the odd Holmes and even an Agatha, but I was writing poetry then and trying to hide it from everyone. Then University…
Right, well, so I see KNOTS AND CROSSES in the Crime Fiction section and I’m a bit put off. After all, I’ve just tried to write the contemporary Scot’s novel and I’m in this “genre” section.
Happy to say I landed there. I picked up a few books. P.D. James. Different politics, but a very good writer. It was the Americans I took an immediate shine to, though.
Born in the U.S.A.
James Lee Burke, there’s a writer for you. James Ellroy was a big influence. Some of his stuff comes off as works in progress, copious footnotes. Still, brilliant. Lawrence Block, the Scudder books. Add Ruth Rendell. So that was my beginning. As a writer, you have to read a fair amount; you’d be letting your own writing down if you didn’t.
Good vs. Bad
I love this genre when it’s done well. Crime Fiction lends itself to telling a story through and with interpretation. It’s not fair that “Crime Writers” are often measured by plot, setting and character. I say this having spent seven years deconstructing novels through the sum of their parts. The great crime novel, like any novel is a summation of itself. You don’t pick it apart as your reading it, not if it’s good. And who really has the time for the bad?
There’s bad, too, and I’m willing to name names. Patricia Cornwell, there’s one. Exciting first books. New kind of protagonist. Great science, forward plotting. And then, …, s@#*. Why’d she do it to herself, why did she do it to the readers? Well enough alone, Patsy.
That was the beginning, those first books. At the same time, you’re getting your own career going. Those first years, putting food on the table, I was writing a lot. So much I published under a pseudonym for a time, Jack Harvey.
Meeting of the Minds
I received the Raymond Chandler fellowship one year and my wife and I went about the States, soaking it up with our infant son, Jack. Our first Bouchercon (the annual convention for mystery fans, publishers, editors, writers, agents, and dealers) was in Toronto. I got my first American editor on chance there. My son Jack, all of nine months, was crawling along the floor when an attractive woman in one of the stalls picked him up off the floor.
“What a cute baby!” lead to me introducing myself. To my surprise she said, “My husband is your biggest fan.” Well, since she was quite obviously American my reaction was, “But I’m not even published in the states”.
The lady’s husband was Otto Penzler and by the end of the convention he had become my first American publisher. Someone willing to give a young Scotsman a shot at an American readership.
Sharing Shelf Space
I kept reading. I’ve come into this all at a very good time. “Grandfather of Tartan Noir”, I’m a bit tired of that. I’m not old enough to be a grandfather! Still, there’s an awful lot of superb writing coming from my countrymen right now. Val McDermid, Sandy McCall Smith, Denise Mina, Louise Welch. Chris Brookmyre is another writer for Americans who like our stuff to find a home for on their shelves.
And for young authors with a lot of promise, I’ll mention Allan Guthrie. TWO-WAY SPLIT is his first novel and in March 2005, he releases KISS HER GOOD-BYE.
Twenty years on and I’m still amazed, but feel I’ve paid the dues. I’ve been at the signings where nobody came, the conventions where no one knew who I was. There are always the moments though.
Last year, I was at the Las Vegas Bouchercon. “British Guest of Honor”. James Lee Burke was the American guest of honor, Ruth Rendell the international guest. Full circle really. I’ve worked hard. They have too. And in opening ceremonies, Lee Child proclaims he was my first reader and fuck all, I believe he must have been. For he’d read my work in Hi-Fi magazine, made up reviews of stereo components I couldn’t afford.
A Different Game
There are differences for a Brit and an American. It’s kind of ironic, when I first signed on with Little Brown they flew me over, there was a breakfast to meet all the staffers and such, Pelecanos, Connelly, Lehane and me.
“Clint’s going to do Mystic River,”
“Hey yeah he’s doing my movie as well.”
And I’m sitting here going, “Fuck, these American writers, they just get these film deals.”
There’s nothing like that in the U.K. No high-end, back-end. If we’re lucky, we might have a new kit paid for by B.B.C. or SKY. But Eastwood? Fuck. It’s a different game.
Birds of a Feather
I’ve my mates you know, Val McDermid, Peter Robinson, Mark Billingham, Simon Kernick. And there’s George Pelecanos, I toured with him last winter. It’ makes a difference, knowing there’s someone with you on the trail whose been through it before.
And the American ladies! Karin Slaughter, Laura Lippman, S.J Rozan: friends and compatriots all. There’s a bar and it’s risen fairly high, but with the talent available in the genre now it can only rise higher.
Crime-writers make a really good community. Crime readers are fair critics for the most part. And Crime Fiction? Well, it’s been very good to me.”
Shortly after completing this interview I heard of a rumor. Could it be? Sean Connery? In a post script I felt I had to ask the man who’s perhaps the biggest movie fan outside of my husband I know…
In June of 2004 I was on a promotional tour of South Africa, and got a call saying Sean Connery would be in Edinburgh in August and would like to meet with me, as he is a big fan of my Rebus novels. So... August arrived and with it a call from Sir Sean. He was staying at a friend's place. I drove there, we sat down together and chatted for a couple of hours. It was a wide-ranging conversation, taking in his childhood in Edinburgh, some of his films, my views of Scotland,. his take on politics and the new Scottish parliament, my inability to play golf, and so forth. He told me he passes the Rebus novels along to friends and recommends them to acquaintances. He also said that had I been writing about Rebus twenty years ago, he would have liked a stab at portraying the detective onscreen. (Of course, I WAS writing about Rebus twenty years ago... but maybe below Sir Sean's radar.) Anyhoo, eventually I was asked to write about Sir Sean for the UK edition of Esquire magazine, so more of our conversation can be found there.
No doubt Crime Fiction’s been very good to Ian Rankin, and assuredly he’s reciprocated.
REBUS: A NEW AGENDA?
by Richard Flannery
Rankin has always insisted that Edinburgh is the hero of his novels. Fair enough, but this long-time reader has always had a soft spot for the central character, John Rebus. I admit Rebus is difficult, often as gloomy and cheerless as the Scots climate, but there’s a certain charm in a character who doesn’t try to be likeable. Besides, Rebus needs to be tough. I suppose the novels count as police procedurals in some cataloging sense, but Rebus is definitely not a team player. He holds back information, distrusts most of his fellow officers as well as his bosses. Rebus is about getting the case solved in spite of the police organization. Author Rankin has written Rebus as a person with very little personal baggage. The (divorced) wife and daughter are mostly off in London.
There are no neighbors, dogs, buddies. Rebus has a favorite bar, the Ox, where no one bothers him unless he wants to talk. Rebus observes the city for us and the cases are mostly revealed through his (third person) eyes, but the Detective Inspector plays his cards closely even with the readers. We’re often not sure what his motives are or exactly what he’s thinking (unless it’s about his musical preferences) and we know little about his history. Rankin has been clever enough to write a mystery series in which the detective is a mystery, something certain to appeal to many mystery readers. We have to do our own Watson work.
The recent novels, RESURRECTION MEN, A QUESTION OF BLOOD , and FLESHMARKET CLOSE (FLESHMARKET ALLEY in the U.S.) tell the story of the emergence of a John Rebus who needs and wants things from other people. It’s about time for the detective to make some changes. His police career is rapidly sliding down the far side of the slope and —just as in real life— his bosses are glad to give this longstanding troublemaker as much pain as they can on his way out. For a long time Farmer Watson, his boss at St. Leonard’s, protected Rebus because Rebus got results none of his other detectives were going to get. By the opening of RESURRECTION MEN Farmer Watson is retired, St. Leonard’s is in the process of closing, and Rebus, always a man alone from our first meeting with him in KNOTS AND CROSSES is even more isolated from most of his fellow officers. Thus, the novel’s plot: Rebus is undercover ( investigating police corruption) at a police re-training course designed to give aging officers a chance to rescue what’s left of their careers before they get fired. Rebus gets there by throwing a cup of coffee at his onetime colleague and sort-of girlfriend, Gill Templar, now his boss, in front of everyone at St. Leonard’s. This little bit of theater works because Rebus’ fall from grace comes as no surprise to his fellow officers. He’s just the man for a bit of attitude adjustment.
A QUESTION OF BLOOD is author Rankin’s commentary on the current fascination with forensic sciences on the bestseller list and TV mysteries. Rebus knows pretty well what the lab reports are going to reveal about the killing, but the real question is why the murderer suddenly turned to violence, a question of motivation. Those answers may come from a study of people’s tangled family history’s, their ‘blood’ background. During the novel Rebus has to confront what his own casual neglect of a family member long ago has contributed to the mystery he’s solving. The mystery of sudden criminal violence is not going to be “solved” by blood spatter patterns OR by gun control legislation. That’s one of the many reasons to love these novels, no quick and easy explanations here.
As FLESHMARKET CLOSE opens St. Leonard’s has closed—hail and farewell-- and Rebus doesn’t even have a desk at his new police station. He hardly seems to be part of organized policing in Scotland at all. Rebus is ‘superfluous to requirements’ except when it comes to breaking the case. During the case he’s less interested in getting a result–in fact the cops get the ‘wrong’ result– than he is in doing something for the victims of the crime. He’s willing to trade a chance to skewer a cop he dislikes for some favors for a hapless refugee family even though the cop has been manipulated by his long-time nemesis “Big Ger” Cafferty.
The Rankin novels, sixteen of them now, have grown both bigger and deeper in the years since KNOTS AND CROSSES. The writing remains superb, probably the best combination of dialog and observation of any mystery series written today. The portrait of Scotland and Edinburgh is now a lavish one reaching well back into the city’s history and encompassing 21st Century developments. The themes of the novels have become more serious moving from fairly conventional crime plots to political change in Scotland, gun violence, immigration. A critical change in the books has been the emergence of Siobhan Clarke (she hates “Shiv”), a younger, female Rebus. Clarke is not exactly a clone of Rebus, she’s more outgoing (at least on the surface) and far more interested in a successful police career than Rebus ever was. But she’s just as single-minded, secretive and determined and has emerged in recent books as pretty much Rebus’ equal as a detective.
Clarke and Rebus have an intriguing relationship. They have each other’s back against the rest of the cops, share information they keep from others, and are complicit in each others’ lies. The two of them, inevitably, rely on their non-communication skills to deal with each other, frequently keeping things from each other to avoid wounding the other’s pride or dignity. Rebus and Clarke are two people for whom non-disclosure is a way of life. There are signs that things are coming to a head for this doughty couple. In FLESHMARKET they are openly jealous of each other’s dates and the question is raised what kind of ‘pals’ or ‘mates’ they are. Can two stiff-necked loners work out a relationship? I haven’t a clue, but at his age Rebus is lucky to have that kind of problem.
Crimespree #5 and 6 are bundled together for ebooks: