Exile on Princes Street:
Inspector Rebus & I
I was too young and very stupid when I came up with the character of John Rebus. Evidence for the prosecution: I didn't know the crime genre still existed; all I knew about police work and legal machinations was learned from films, TV, other novels (All of them American); and I gave my hero a really stupid name.
This is 1985. I had already written two novels - a surrealistic comedy set in a Highland hotel (never published), and the usual young, man's Bildungsroman, which was about to be published by a student co-operative in Edinburgh. (Cries of nepotism in 1985 I happened to be a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh.) I was studying towards a PhD in Scottish Literature - see it's okay for me to use words like Bildungsroman, I'm qualified. But actually, I was spending the three grant-maintained years writing short stories and novels. I had the grant from 1983 till 1986: in 1983 I wrote the hotel novel in '84 my young man's folly; and in '85 I got the idea for a Scottish gothic novel, the sort of thing I enjoyed reading - Robert Louis Stevenson at his darkest; James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner (wacky title, wacky guy).
But I'd also read some McIllvaney (Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch). These were thrillers, but McIllvaney was still respected in the Scottish literary and critical community. So I knew it was all right to try my hand at Scots gothic, tartan noir. And it began with a pun: noughts and crosses/knots and crosses. I had the idea of a policeman being sent these little clues - knotted pieces of string: matchstick crosses. I was reading a lot of modern literary theory, and I liked the idea of books as games with the reader. I felt that a whodunit was probably the ultimate author/reader game. So Knots & Crosses has its puns and its acrostics, and I even found what I thought (poor naive sod) was the perfect name for the hero - John Rebus. "John" because the first crime books I ever got in to were Ernest Tidyman's appalling (but I loved them) Shaft series. (I owned the record before I ever read the books.) And "Rebus" because a Rebus is a kind of picture puzzle popular at one time in the "Merry Mac Fun Page" of the ruthlessly parochial Sunday Post newspaper.
I didn't mind giving my hero a ludicrous name: Knots & Crosses was a strictly one-off deal. To get back to Shaft ("Who's the private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks?"), I've always read books, and I've always written stories. As a pre-teen, I bought seven or eight comics a week minimum from the local newsagent, and made my own comics, with stick-men and speech bubbles. Later I discovered pop music and formed my own band (inside my head), creating a whole universe for them: I designed album sleeves, wrote their lyrics, stage-managed their tours and public appearances...I even wrote the script for their Parkinson appearance. The band was called Kaput, after the lead singer Ian Kaput. On guitar was hunky Blue Lightning; bass was Zed "Killer" Macintosh; the drummer had a double-barrelled name, now lost in time (to paraphrase t e end of Blade Runner - "all these memories will be lost in time...)
I liked writing the song lyrics; they rhymed and later on would become poems. I was still writing poetry when I went to university (came in handy when I joined the punk band...). But along the way I discovered BOOKS. We didn't have a bookshop in my village. Ah, my village. Mining community until they shut the pit; all four of my father's brothers were miners; his two sisters were both married to miners. By the time my dad was born, my gran had had enough of it - he wasn't allowed down the pits worked in a grocer's shop instead. An inveterate storyteller and a born liar...
When Browhill Colliery closed, the village started to go downhill. It even lost its name, being sucked into the larger town of Cardenden. We called it Car-dead-end. How could kids escape? Answer: an active fantasy life. Either that or join the gang. Y-Hill or YCD, early 1970s, pitched battles with nearby towns - YCM (Young Lochgelly Mental), Tinny Sally (from Ballingry, God knows where they got the name), The Valley....I was always on the periphery, taking it in and taking it down. Coward? Maybe. You'd more likely find me in the local library, especially when I discovered
1) that it stocked Amateur Photographer, and
2) that there were no age restrictions.
I was twelve, thirteen; I couldn't go into a newsagent's and buy Club or Parade but no one stopped me reading The Godfather or dozens of violent Western titles (I recall the Edge books especially, plus some rip-off Kung-Fu - called Slade or something similar). My parents didn't mind either, since somewhere along the way an old uncle they respected had told them, "It doesn't matter what he reads as long as he's reading". Thanks, unc.
My active fantasy life, allied to voracious reading, eventually took me to Edinburgh, a degree in US literature, and postgrad slush money to fund my desire to become a novelist. Not a crime novelist though. I remember when Bodley Head published Knots & Crosses, I looked in vain for reviews, only to be told I should be looking in the crime sections of the various broadsheets. I looked, and sure enough the reviews were there. I thought they'd made a mistake: I hadn't written a crime novel. But when the Crime Writers' Association asked if I wanted to join, and I knew it was me who'd made the mistake. So I walked into a bookshop, looked, and saw, way near the back, a shadowy line of shelves marked CRIME. And thus learned that that crime didn't begin and end with Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. Mind you, I still wasn't going to be a crime writer, even if I did start reading and enjoying the stuff. My next two novels were a Greene-ish spy story (Watchman, still one of my favourites) and a slam-bang conspiracy thriller with space shuttles and spy satellites, and a partial American setting (not that I'd ever been to the USA).
By this time I was married and living in London. My wife worked in Whitehall, and I had a job first of all at the National Folktale Centre in Tottenham, and then as reporter (rising to editor) on a hi-fi magazine in Crystal Palace. I reviewed book on my way to and from work, and at weekends I worked on novels, stories, literary essays (check out my chapter on Muriel Spark in The Scottish Novel Since the 1970's, the litcrit equivalent of Ovaltine).
But people keep asking me, whatever happened to that nice Detective-Sergeant Rebus? And eventually I came up with another slice of Edinburgh gothic, and decided Rebus would make as good a hero as anyone, especially promoted Detective Inspector. That was Hide & Seek. By that time, I'd grown up, I'd done a bit of research: I knew more about police procedure, the way the Scottish courts worked, what a pathologist did. I didn't have to depend an Crown Court or the McIlvanney books for information. It didn't make books any easier to write, but I felt better about them.
I remember an early attempt at research. 1985 again, and again I wrote to the Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders asking if he'd answer a few questions. He told me to be at Leith Police Station on a certain date, certain time - a couple of bore -looking CID men were on hand to help me. They asked what the book was about, I told them a child murderer, What I hadn't realised was that a child had recently been abducted in Leith, and a Murder Room had been set up. So they took down some of my details and added me to their computer. I became suspect 350, and spent more time answering their questions than they spent answering mine...
As I said at the start I was way too young when I wrote Knots & Crosses... Anyway, like it or not I've stuck with Rebus ever since. But I'm still not convinced I'm a whodunniteer: if anything (warning! ponderous statement ahead!) I'm writing commentaries on Scotland's present, its foibles and psychoses, the flaws in its character. I'm dissecting a nation, and it pleases me that a lot of my Scottish readers compare my stuff to Irvine Welsh rather than, say, the "cosy". I'm still not comfortable with the form and admire writers who take risks with it. Lawrence Block can write a novel with only the bare bones of a "crime" plot, yet still make it gripping and memorable. James Ellroy takes risks with language: he's not the first writer to realise that words are imprecise tools, and that sometime the more we write the less we say. His style of shorthand gets to the essential life of the characters, and to the essentially mad (and maddening) kaleidoscope that is and was LA...
I'd better stop mentioning other writers: omission can be cruel.
Reading back through this, I see that I've written a lot about me, not so much about John Rebus. There's a good reason for this: I still don't know the guy very well. He surprises me from book to book. I've only the vaguest idea what he looks like, though I know (to one television company's chagrin) that he bears no resemblance whatsoever to Robbie Coltrane. And I get scared that if I think or talk too much about him, he'll....I don't know, vanish in a puff of smoke or something. I don't mind talking about the books or their author, but the character who holds the books together... well that's alchemy. See, he's pure fiction; he was invented before I ever met a real-life policeman, so he can't be based on one. And the 25-year old creator of Knots & Crosses made its hero nearly 40 - and at a time when the only 40-year-olds I knew were my oldest sister and her husband. A couple of critics in Scotland have had a go at writing about the Rebus novels in some depth, but I don't think they've pinned him down either - which is good. He's out there driving through the night, an exile on Princes Street, stopping off at pubs across Edinburgh. He always ends up at the Oxford Bar on Young Street, waiting for me to walk through the door with another episode for him.
It's coming, John: Black & Blue...
First Published in A Shot in the Dark Winter '95 Copyright Ian Rankin, 1995