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.
Since that novel, Rankin has barely paused. It’s exhausting even to list what he’s done. 1992 saw the publication of Tooth & Nail (or, as it was first called until the American editor came up with the improved title, Wolfman). This sent Rebus south to London, on secondment to a murder enquiry in which the killer takes a bite out of his unfortunate victims. Rankin spent time in London and hated it, so he makes Rebus hate it too, and in the course of doing so comes up with some good anti-nature writing: the River Lea is ‘a place where supermarket trollies came to die, a dank stretch of water bordered on one side by marshland and on the other by industrial sites and lo-rise housing’. The mantra of the Scottish detective in London is FYTP, or Fuck You Too Pal. 1992 also brought the 12 short fictions of A Good Hanging and Other Stories, on which I can offer no comment because I haven’t read it. In the same year Rankin also published another full-length Rebus novel, Strip Jack: it told the story of Gregor Jack, a likable-seeming Scots Labour MP turned over by the tabloids when he is caught in a brothel raid. After Jack’s public humiliation his wife disappears, and it looks as if one of his apparently well-wishing friends is trying to destroy him. But then, as Confucius said, few pleasures in life are equal to that of seeing an old friend slip slowly off a roof ... 1993 saw the publication of The Black Book, in which Rebus is reunited with his brother Mickey, a former stage hypnotist who went to prison for drug dealing at the end of the events described in Knots & Crosses. Rebus becomes caught up in an inquiry into a mysterious hotel fire five years before, involving an unidentified body and further layers of thoroughly suppressed Edinburgh secrets. The sixth Rebus novel, Mortal Causes, published in 1994, begins with a gruesome torture-and-murder in a basement in the middle of town during the Edinburgh Festival. The victim turns out to be the son of Big Ger Cafferty, the worst gangster in town, and Rebus’s investigations soon involve gun-running and Loyalist paramilitaries. 1996’s Rebus novel was Let It Bleed, which opens with a car crash, continues with the apparent abduction of the Lord Provost’s daughter and a shotgun suicide during a local councillor’s constituency surgery, and goes on to focus on, again, systematic corruption and covering-up in Edinburgh’s high places, this time involving the Scottish Development Agency.
The division or turning-point in Rankin’s career came in 1997 with the publication of Black & Blue. The first Rebus books were well above average crime novels; from Black & Blue onwards there is an extra sense of range and ambition about Rankin’s work. Not coincidentally, this was the point at which Rankin, as publishers say, ‘broke out’ from his fan base to achieve genuine bestsellerdom. The book owes a great deal to Andrew O’Hagan’s The Missing, a debt acknowledged by the dedication of Rankin’s next novella, Death Is Not the End, the following year. O’Hagan’s book told the story of a murderer known as Bible John whose deeds and, just as important, whose legend terrorised Glasgow in the mid-1960s. In Black & Blue a series of copy-cat murders is being perpetrated by a killer the tabloids have dubbed Johnny Bible. Rebus, as well as following the new case, is looking over the original murders from thirty years before. A third case from twenty years ago, in which a colleague of Rebus’s may have framed an innocent man, has been revived by media interest. And as the novel begins a man who works for an oil company is kidnapped, tied up, and plunges to his death on spiked railings outside a block of flats. Then Bible John himself – an oil man, we discover, long gone from Scotland – returns to take an interest in his upstart imitator. And then there is the question of the corrupt policeman Rebus encounters in Aberdeen and his efforts to block Rebus’s enquiries, not to mention the detective’s own escalating drink problem.
The next two novels in the sequence, The Hanging Garden (1998) and Dead Souls (1999), are comparably ambitious in their scope, and cover subjects such as Nazi war criminals living in Scottish retirement, refugee-smuggling rackets from Bosnia, gang wars in Edinburgh’s thriving drug scene, the near-fatal injuring of Rebus’s daughter by a child joyrider, paedophilia and the question of how to resettle paedophile offenders after their prison terms, abuse in children’s homes, vigilantism (a nicely caustic, independent-minded portrait), chequebook journalism, the redevelopment of the dockside area in Leith. The sheer range of subjects treated in the novels is one of the keys to their interest. John Rebus, born in irritation at the self-ghettoising of the literary novel, grew into a highly effective tool for describing and engaging with modern Scotland. Rankin does not indulge any temptation to play formal games with his character. There is no ludic or ironic component to the series, just as there is none to Rebus himself; the books do not experiment with the crime-novel form, and do not make any kind of distancing or Post-Modern gestures towards it. A writer who began by trying to write a book his father might want to read found himself, after the publication of Dead Souls, occupying eight of the top ten positions in the Scottish bestseller list. That is unprecedented.
There is one sense in which Rankin is a representative figure. A large irony about late 20th-century British history was the fact that one of its few politicians to have a genuinely passionate, visceral commitment to the idea of the Union – Mrs Thatcher – did more than anyone else to undermine it. The furious rage in Scotland about rule by what seemed like a feudal power several hundred miles to the south lent unstoppable momentum to the arguments for some form of devolved assembly. James Kelman is perhaps more than anyone the writer of this historical moment, of the definition of contemporary Scottish identity as oppositionally not-English. He is, as Rebus might put it, the poet of FYTP. But as the arguments for the de-Anschlussing of Scotland gathered force, another set of questions came into play, or revived. These tended, and tend, to focus not on a Scottishness defined by its quarrel with England so much as by its internal contests and divisions. It’s an old story become fresh again since the end of the Cold War: when an imperial or centralising power retreats, old arguments revive and differences reawaken. Scotland is a country with a generous share of these: Highland v. Lowland, Glasgow v. Edinburgh, Protestant v. Catholic, the Edinburgh of lawyers v. the Edinburgh of junkies, Rangers v. Celtic, Hearts v. Hibs, Rab C. Nesbitt v. John Knox. Rankin, born in 1960 and grown to artistic maturity after the Thatcherite Ragnarök, has set out systematically to write about these divisions and contests. His favourite plot device, on which almost every one of his books turns, involves the coming alive of painful secrets from the past.
Set in Darkness, Rankin’s 13th Rebus book (eleven novels, one book of stories, one novella), opens with a classically Rankinian secret-from-the-past: a body has been found behind a fireplace in a building being torn down to permit the construction of the new Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh. The body appears to have been immured there during building works in the late 1970s, just before the vote on devolution which – thanks to outrageous feats of governmental rigging – failed to win Scottish independence the last time around. Immediately after the discovery of this old crime, as is often the way in Rebusworld, a new crime takes place, with what may or may not be a connection to the past. Roddy Grieve, ambitious member of the Scottish Labour Party and sure-thing candidate for the new legislature when it opens (‘Scottish Labour’s Mr Fixit’ is one nickname, ‘Mr Suck-Up’ another), is found bludgeoned to death, also on the site of the new Parliament.
This introduces a whole new level of difficulty to the affair. Grieve is part of a highly visible media clan, his mother a posh old painter called Alicia Rankeillor, his sister Lorna a model famous in the 1970s, his brother Cammo a pompous Tory MP with a Home Counties constituency. So the press are all over the case, which is assigned to Rebus and an ambitious young toad of a DI called Derek Linford. Meanwhile, Rebus’s onetime sidekick and protégée DS Siobhan Clarke, on her way home from an unsuccessful date with Linford, sees a homeless man throw himself over North Bridge to his death. When the tramp’s body is searched it turns out he is carrying a building society passbook which shows he is more than £400,000 in credit. It appears there may be some connection between the tramp and the initial murder back in the 1970s, since the tramp seems to have adopted his identity ex nihilo shortly after the man in the fireplace disappeared – and even took the dead man’s name. This is not to mention the sexual assault case being investigated by Clarke, or the missing person’s case Rebus is looking into on behalf of an old girlfriend in Fife for whom he is beginning to rediscover tender feelings. And what’s all this about Big Ger Cafferty being released from prison with terminal cancer?
This is just the set-up: there’s plenty more narrative where that came from. Rankin is very good indeed with plot. This might sound like a rudimentary or entry-level requirement for a writer of crime fiction but in fact it is astonishing how bad much work in the genre is in this respect. Earlier I made it sound self-evident that Rankin became famous just as his books hit a new level of achievement; but that is actually a rare event. Most genre writers, from Alistair MacLean to Patricia Cornwell, go off badly once they succeed. Rankin’s standards have only got higher as his books have done better. It must be a Calvinist thing.
As, indeed, is Rankin’s chief creation, DI Rebus himself. In my notes for this piece I reminded myself to make the point that Rebus’s name is about the only anti-realistic touch in Rankin’s work, the text’s sole concession to admitting its own fictionality: not as unlikely as a Dubliner called Dedalus, but still pretty unlikely. Before making this forceful and cogent critical intervention, I thought it would be, as Gordon Brown would say, prudent, to check the Edinburgh phone book. There he is: J. Rebus. Fishily, he lives in Rankin Avenue. This might be a case of life imitating art – as Rankin points out, the site of one of the fictional Wolfman murders in London now bears a graffito saying Wolfman – or it might be whence Rankin got the name in the first place, but either way it rather spookily scuppers what was going to have been my point.
What is unquestionably realistic about Rebus is his stuckness. A great deal happens in his life, which incidentally, and genre-defyingly, occurs in real time during the novel sequence: 41 in Knots & Crosses 13 years ago, Rebus is in his mid-fifties for the opening of the Scottish Parliament. His relationship with his daughter has ups and downs, his relationships with girlfriends have downs and downs, he incarcerates Big Ger Cafferty and then more than once depends on favours done him by the gangster, he gets into varyingly severe degrees of trouble with his bosses, and has friends and colleagues get into all sorts of difficulties around him, and through all this is essentially unchanged. Of the characters we meet in the first few pages of Knots & Crosses, Rebus’s brother Mickey has gone to prison, come out and retrained as a therapist; Jack Morton has given up drink and cigarettes, come close to helping Rebus do the same, become his best friend, and then been killed in a shoot-out with an armed gang; Jim Stephens, a sleazeball tabloid journalist, has been murdered by a man whose story he was serialising for his paper. Rebus has had his own difficulties with drink, going from being a heavy habitual drinker to something close to a bona fide alcoholic to giving up altogether to going back on the booze to – in a startling plot twist in Set in Darkness – becoming someone who has a drink when he feels like it but tends not to overdo things. Who’d have predicted that?
Stubbornness is Rebus’s most deep-seated characteristic. All the various ways in which he could improve the quality of his life – which boil down essentially to his being less impossible – are somehow unthinkable. He stands in everybody else’s way, but he stands in his own way too: difficult, determined, remorseless, honourable, honest, and proud of his lack of charm. He is a deeply Scottish self-image, in the same way that Asterix (intelligent, fair-minded, moyen sensuel, never at a loss, cunning but not malign) is a deeply French one. The lack of an attempt to be endearing is perhaps Rebus’s best feature. In the forthcoming TV series the part has been given to John Hannah, a good youngish actor but one who can’t prevent himself from trying to be liked, and not in any way like the sometimes-thuggish Rebus of the novels; it’s the sort of move which causes people in TV to say, we’ve solved it in the casting, meaning, we’ve buggered it up.
As for the books, there is trouble looming. The fact that the novels age their hero in real time means that Rebus is coming up to retirement. Like most of Rankin’s fans I have come to feel a deep attachment to St Leonard’s Police Station’s least clubbable DI. But much as I would like Rebus to enjoy a comfortable retirement with an unlimited supply of Macallan and twin stacks of paperbacks and CDs to wade through, I somehow can’t see it. His fate, I suspect, may be closely interlinked with that of Big Ger Cafferty, a complicated figure whose worldview has much more in common with Rebus’s than the policeman would be willing to admit – and a better, more delicately drawn Hyde figure than the ones in the early books. At one point in Set in Darkness the two men meet at Warriston Crematorium. They are remembering an earlier conversation. Rebus speaks first; Cafferty refers to him by a private nickname, Strawman.
‘You said we’re a cruel race, and at the same time we like pain.’
‘We thrive on defeat, Strawman. And this Parliament will put us back in charge of our own destinies for the first time in three centuries.’
‘So maybe it’s a time for looking forward, not back.’ Cafferty stopped. His breath came out as a grey vapour. ‘But you ... you just can’t leave the past alone, can you?’
‘You brought me to a garden of remembrance to tell me I’m living in the past?’
Cafferty shrugged. ‘We all have to live with the past; doesn’t mean we have to live in it.’
Any student of the subject can tell you that there’s no point saying that to Rebus. Much more likely that in a few – preferably a good few – novels’ time, a convulsive final secret will see him and Cafferty locked together, disappearing over some Caledonian equivalent of the Reichenbach Falls.