“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...
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