Rebusworld

John Lanchester

  • Set in Darkness by Ian Rankin
    Orion, 415 pp, £16.99, February 2000, ISBN 0 7528 2129 6

According to the OED, a ‘rebus’ is ‘an enigmatic representation of a name, word or phrase by figures, pictures, arrangement of letters etc, which suggest the syllables of which it is made up’. In 1987, Ian Rankin’s novel Knots & Crosses introduced us to a tough Edinburgh Detective Sergeant called John Rebus. A series of local girls had been kidnapped and strangled. Rebus – 41-year-old drinker, ex-soldier, failed husband, absentee father, Christian, annual rereader of Crime and Punishment – begins receiving a series of cryptic notes. The first few messages say There are clues everywhere. Then a message is delivered to Rebus’s home: For those who read between the times. It becomes clear that the killer has some personal connection to the detective. An Eng. Lit. professor at Edinburgh University calls Rebus to say that, as the author of Reader Exercises and Directed Exegetic Response, he has noticed that the names of the victims appear to make up a word: take the first letters of their Christian names and surnames and they spell out the word Samantha. That’s a rebus; it’s also the name of Rebus’s daughter. He dashes off to find her but she has already been abducted by the killer, an army buddy of Rebus’s who cracked during SAS training and has held a grudge against him ever since. Rebus gets there just in time to save his daughter, though not without being shot – the first of the many woundings, beatings and physical mishaps which befall him in Rankin’s books.

A new edition of the first three Rebus novels – Knots & Crosses, Hide & Seek, Tooth & Nail – comes with an informative short introduction by Rankin about how he came to write them.[*] Rankin’s first work, The Flood, was an autobiographical novel ‘all about a teenage boy living in a Fife mining town and dreaming of escape to Edinburgh’. He gave it to his father, who read it, ‘and went back to his bookshelf: James Bond, Where Eagles Dare’. So Rankin gave James Kelman’s first book to his father.

His sort of thing, I thought. Working-class working man against the system. Dad couldn’t read it. Said it wasn’t ‘written in English’. Said there wasn’t any story. I was shocked. This was literature. It was good for you. It was the stuff I was studying. Dad’s reaction made me think about the kind of writer I wanted to be.

The result was Knots & Crosses, an attempt ‘to update Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to 1980s Edinburgh. My idea was: cop as good guy (Jekyll), villain as bad guy (Hyde).’

So the Rebus books were born in a deliberate avoidance of the literary – or rather, of a certain idea of what the literary should be. Nobody wants to define ‘literary fiction’ for fear of sounding stupid or philistine, but at the same time everybody knows what they mean by the term. A clearness about this idea of literary fiction has helped Rankin to write books which are its opposite: novels based on character, plot and under-described chunks of the real world. In that sense, the received idea of ‘literary fiction’ is put to real use in his work. A brief summary of his trajectory as a writer would be to say that it began by being oppositional – i.e. he set out to write books that were not-literary-fiction – and then discovered that he had come upon an identity of his own, which did not depend on not-being anything.

The second Rebus novel, Hide & Seek, was published in 1991, the un-Rankinish four-year gap being caused by the fact that he took time out to write a spy novel and a techno-thriller. It was another attempt to use Stevenson, or to rework him, or to think about him, though it was at the same time a less literary book than Knots & Crosses, which does after all turn on a single pun about rebuses. The aspect of the Jekyll and Hyde story which particularly interested Rankin was its portrayal of Edinburgh as a city of appearances and division, a place of almost structural hypocrisy. In the novel the freshly promoted Detective Inspector Rebus grows interested in a case which seems to interest no one else, the death by apparent overdose of a junkie in a squat. The case is made difficult by what appears to be general indifference but turns out to be a systematic cover-up: a number of the city’s bigwigs are involved in attending an illegal boxing club called Hyde’s, in which rent boys pummel each other in the ring and then have sex with the audience afterwards. Rebus breaks up the club but the cover-up is effective and no news ever gets out. Where Knots & Crosses was an exploration of the formal aspect of the Jekyll and Hyde story, Hide & Seek is a study of the moral implications of Stevenson’s work: a study of secrecy and hypocrisy, and a vision of Edinburgh as a city in which respectability and crime re-breathe each other’s air.

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[*] Rebus: The Early Years (Orion, 608 pp., £10.99,18 May, 0 75283 799 0).