THIS week’s Icon has been called “the king of Tartan Noir” and other insults. Ian Rankin describes himself as an “accidental crime writer”, having original fancied writing right proper literature. 

However, his detective novels brim with such profundity that they appear on university syllabuses.

His most famous character is called Rebus, a word for a puzzle, and a name you or I would be ashamed to come up with for a fictional character. To his credit, Rankin now thinks similarly. 

It is, he says, “a stupid name” prompted by trying to be clever. Correct (with apologies to the two or three Rebuses he claims to have encountered in Scotland).

Nonetheless, Rebus is the name of a new six-part series starting on BBC Scotland this Friday. Adapted by Gregory Burke from the novels, it features violence that’s “literally in your face”, which sounds disturbingly interactive. One subtext is the current crisis of masculinity, which is now illegal in Scotland.

Ian James Rankin was born quite legally in Cardenden, Fife, on April 28, 1960. His father owned a grocery shop, his mother worked in a school canteen.

Rankin and his pals called Cardenden “Car-dead-end”. He sought escape in his imagination and coming second in a school poetry contest, with a poem called Euthanasia, convinced him literary life was worth living.

He was educated at Cowdenbeath High, where a teacher encouraged him to go for higher education, which he did, to his parents’ dismay. They’d wanted him to study for a trade, something most of us wish we’d done now, instead of being educated beyond our intelligence and left unable to make or repair anything.

At 11 or 12, he discovered detective fiction in the Shaft novels, seeing obvious echoes of the black American experience in Kirkcaldy and Aberdour. He got Rebus’s unusual first name from John Shaft before burdening it with Rebus.

A bright spark
Ian went to Embra Yoonie to study English Literature An’ That, graduating in 1982 before working on a doctorate about modern Scottish literature and Muriel Spark. The spark went out and he didn’t finish it, working instead on his own fiction.

This qualified him for post-university employment as a grape-picker, swineherd, hi-fi journalist, taxman, college secretary and punk rocker in The Dancing Pigs, unless he was telling porkies about that.

All the time he was telling porkies in book form. His first novel, Summer Rites, a black comedy set in a Highland hotel, was never published, but he was luckier with his second, The Flood (1986). It was, it says here, a Bildungsroman – aye – about a young man dreaming of moving from a decaying Fife mining village to Edinburgh, land of milk and pish.

The following year, while Rankin was living in London, land of pish and pish, the first Rebus, Knots And Crosses, flopped forth. 

To get procedure right, Rankin wrote to Lothian and Borders Polis and was directed to a Leith police station, where he found himself a suspect in a case that mirrored his story. They even asked:

“What were you doing on the night of November 11?” Ian played along, thinking they were demonstrating procedure, but later had it confirmed that “they were looking at me as a kidnapper”.

Believing himself the new Robert Louis Stevenson, Rankin was appalled when Knots And Crosses was put on the crime shelves, and went round bookstores moving it into Scottish fiction. Fat lot of good it did. Knots And Crosses, Rankin recalled, “was received with complete silence”, so he wrote a spy novel called The Watchman, and a comedy thriller, Westwind, which had “spy satellites, space shuttles, all kinds of shit in it”. I see.

Somewhere along the line, his wife persuaded him to move to France, buying a cheap farm with the aim of becoming self-sufficient so that Ian could act the full-time writer. 

Despite ending up “with a fridge full of lettuce and cabbage that we didn’t really want to eat”, they lived in France for six years, though Rankin returned to Edinburgh frequently for research/pints.

The Herald:

Dear green place
Edinburgh he has described to US internet publication January Magazine as “a very repressed city, a very Calvinist, Presbyterian place”, unlike Glasgow, which is “very Celtic and open and brash and loud”. That difference is mirrored in the crime.

Meanwhile, you wait ages for one Rebus then 24 turn up.

Black And Blue (1997) – the eighth – propelled Rankin to the top of the crime writing league. 
The novel resurrects Glasgow serial killer Bible John in the shape of Johnny Bible, a copycat nutter.
The Hanging Garden (1998) features a series of hangings, suspected Nazism and Bosnian prostitution. This is what Scottish people read for pleasure.

Set In Darkness (2000) was originally intended as a three-parter about the new Scottish Parliament, but Rankin eventually plumped for “a one-book trilogy – that’s plenty for these idiots”.

So, who is this Inspector Rebus that folk have taken to their hearts and livers? 
Well, like most people, he’s middle-aged and world-weary. Divorced (natch) and dram-addicted (ditto), his workplace is the darker half of Edinburgh, far removed form the plush, law-abiding capital of popular renown, all fur coats and nae nickin’.

Frequently falling foul of the rozzers’ hierarchy, Rebus is more on the wavelength of the crims that come within his purview. And, of course, he doesn’t play by the rules. 

We’d love to see just one book or film featuring a hero who does. Well, apart from Superman.

Dark Knight
IAN has more than one string to his bow. In 2009, he wrote a graphic novel called Dark Entries. In 2013, he co-wrote with Mark Thomson the play Dark Road and, in 2021, completed an unfinished manuscript by the late William McIlvanney, published as The Dark Remains. Dark, dark, dark.

Lighten up, mate. For light relief, he wrote under the pseudonym Jack Harvey, as something to do between Rebuses, which were taking him just three months to write (Rankin believes folk who spend 10 years on a novel take one to write it and nine “to sit around eating KitKats”). 

He has described the Harveys as “big, fat airport-type thrillers”, and found the detail needed for them demanding.

Meanwhile, demand for Rebus remains insatiable. 

More than 30 million books have been sold, and he’s been translated into 22 languages. 
In 2002, Rankin was employed as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and, in 2022, scored a knighthood offy the late Queen Elizabeth.

The latest Rebus, Midnight & Blue, will be released in October.