“Scots writers snubbed in UK book poll” ran the headline in the May 19, 2003, Scotsman. The BBC Big Read list of Britain’s one hundred most popular books included works by fifty-nine English writers but those of just three Scots: J. K. Rowling (four books in her Harry Potter series), Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows, 1908), and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, 1883). Sir Walter Scott did not make the list; neither did Muriel Spark, nor Irvine Welsh, author ofTrainspotting (1993). It was the omission of Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Rankin that especially irked Marc Lambert, head of the Scottish Book Trust: “It is just absurd that Ian Rankin isn’t on the list. He is one of the top-selling crime writers of all time. Month to month, his Inspector Rebus novels are on the best seller lists. And where would crime fiction be without Conan Doyle, the inventor of Sherlock Holmes?” With a writer as popular and arguably as important as Rankin omitted from the BBC shortlist, some wondered what was becoming of literary Britain after devolution.
Born in 1960 in a small mining town in the Kingdom of Fife (just north of Edinburgh), Rankin may not have made the Big Read list, but he is already a Scottish institution (and virtually an industry). He published his first Inspector Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, in 1987, a year after finishing postgraduate studies at the University of Edinburgh, and published thirteen more from 1991 to 2003, including two collections of short stories. (As prolific as he is popular, he published six other novels early in his career.) The Rebus novels, and therefore Rankin’s career, did not take off until the 1997 publication of Black and Blue, winner of the Crime Writers’ Association’s coveted Gold Dagger Award. Remarkably, even as they have become increasingly complex, the novels have become increasingly popular, and not just in Scotland.
Like all good detective fiction, the Rebus novels are entertaining (a good read) and stimulating (offering opportunities for mental gamesmanship), but they are something more as well. As English novelist John Lanchester has pointed out, Rankin’s fiction occupies the middle ground between the high culture Rankin came to prize while a university student and the low or mass culture preferences of his working-class background. If his novels never quite rise literarily to the level of Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room (2002), they certainly rise beyond the formulaic nature of most detective fiction and have given rise to a distinctive variation on the police procedural genre: “tartan noir.” As Rankin has pointed out, “The mechanics of the whodunit—its narrative conventions—do not really interest me. What interests me is the soul of the crime novel—what it tells us about humanity and what it is capable of.”
The Rebus novels are long (four hundred-plus pages), well-plotted, crisply written, punctuated with mordant humor, filled with street-smart dialogue, and dead-smart about police work and the lives of police officers. Stylistically, Rankin rarely overreaches, though when he does, it shows: “Rebus sat down, one finger punching the desk as if trying to find the rewind on life’s remote control” or “He imagined her: tousled hair, sun streaming in through her cream Hessian curtains.” The novels are also topical, registering the impact that North Sea oil, Silicon Glen, the breakup of the Soviet Union, devolution, and other matters have had on Scottish life and the opportunities they offer for the greed, corruption, murder, and mayhem that are the stuff of which crime fiction is made.
Rebus’s name may not be especially Scottish (as is William McIlvanney’s Glaswegian inspector Jack Laidlaw’s), but it is well suited to the genre in general and to the first Rebus novel in particular. A rebus, after all, is an enigmatic representation of a name or a place by figures, pictures, arrangement of letters, et cetera, which suggest the syllables of which it is made up. InKnots and Crosses, a serial killer sends Rebus a rebus made up of the first letters of the victims’ names in order to announce his next victim: Rebus’s daughter, Samantha.
Thanks to Rankin, “rebus” now refers to the detective he has created: a good cop with bad habits who believes in justice but who has trouble with authority and often breaks the rules, who is committed to his job but haunted by his many failures, personal and professional. His worst moments come not when he faces death (as he often does) but when, alone in his Arden Street flat, he has to face himself, with nothing to help him through the dark night of the soul but his cigarettes, his single-malts, his dated pop music collection, and occasionally his junior partner and confidante, Siobhan Clarke. The self-destructiveness of Rankin’s eponymous hero is at once idiosyncratic and representative of a type that dates back to the hard-boiled school of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. Rebus transcends type, however, the way Rankin’s fiction does. In doing so, he has at least as much in common with the protagonists of novels by contemporary Scottish writers such as Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway, A. L. Kennedy, James Kelman, and Alan Warner as with the...
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