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Crime Fiction, the Reality of Evil, and Some Really Great Music

even dogsBy Nancy Bilyeau

There came a time, not long ago, when Ian Rankin, 55, decided he needed a break. He’d written nearly 30 novels and short-story collections, many of them reaching the top of the bestseller lists. In fact, it’s been estimated that Rankin is responsible for 10 percent of all crime fiction sales in the UK. He’s won four Dagger Awards from the Crime Writers’ Association and snared the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. The man who describes himself as a “frustrated rock star” bought a house in Edinburgh in the same neighborhood as Alexander McCall Smith and, for a time, J.K. Rowling.

But wealth and literary awards can’t protect against losses. After a series of friends’ deaths, Rankin, “feeling knackered and shattered,” and his wife, Miranda, decided in 2014 to take time off from the book-a-year existence and travel. Relax. Do the crossword. Pick grapes.

Something took root during that year off; the next novel Rankin wrote is one of his finest to date, EVEN DOGS IN THE WILD. Published last November in the UK to acclaim and No. 1 bestseller status, the novel is poised for North American release. Bringing together the protagonists of his two mystery series, Detective Inspector John Rebus and Internal Affairs Investigator Malcolm Fox, Rankin tells a darkening story of murder, rivalry, and betrayal, marked with moments of unexpected forgiveness–and characters’ uncovering actions of unfathomable cruelty and corruption. In a telephone interview, when asked if EVEN DOGS IN THE WILD has a theme of morality, Rankin doesn’t disagree. However, he says, in his mind the novel is even more about “mortality.”

“It’s about having to pay for past sins,” Rankin says. “I don’t know if I understood it myself at first, but the book is about family ties and the passing of a legacy.”

Rankin’s work has been translated into 22 languages. For a novelist, he says, “Crime fiction is a way to ask, Why do we as human beings keep doing terrible things to each other?” Evil is a concept that Rankin returns to again and again, and in different mediums. It’s not a matter of a professional novelist studying character behavior to flesh out the next bestseller. Rankin’s thinking on the concept resembles more a medieval monk poring over philosophy and brooding over its implications in his Carthusian cell–albeit one that serves late-night whiskey. In 2002 he hosted “Ian Rankin’s Evil Thoughts” on Channel Four, saying, “I make my living thinking about murder, torture, corruption. Other people go to work and deal with markets or construction. ” In the end, Rankin says now, it’s the story of Jekyll and Hyde, written by another Scotsman, that he thinks may come closest to explaining evil in its essential duality. Indeed, in Even Dogs in the Wild, some of the most complex passages belong to “Big Ger” Cafferty, once the most dangerous crime lord of Edinburgh–and Rebus’s nemesis–who is now an old man rendered vulnerable.

In 1997’s Black and Blue, Rankin created an unforgettable portrait of evil in “Bible John.” In the 1960s, Scotland was terrorized by an actual serial killer of three young women, each encountered in a Glasgow ballroom, nicknamed “Bible John,” a man never caught. In the novel, Rankin’s character “Bible John” returns to Scotland 30 years later, outraged by newspaper reports of a new serial killer going by the name of “Johnny Bible,” determined to track down and eliminate “the Upstart,” even as Rebus is getting close to finding the killer as well. It’s a riveting novel, one that also takes on the Scottish oil industry and police brutality. Kirkus said: “Rankin’s dexterity in juggling plots and threats and motives lights up the darkness with a poet’s grace. Reading him is like watching somebody juggle a dozen bottles of single malt without spilling a drop.” The book was well adapted to the small screen in the first of two Rebus television series, this episode starring John Hannah. (Rankin has never watched a Rebus TV episode, to avoid being influenced.)

While wrestling with the darkness of Black and Blue, Rankin was dealing with the diagnosis of his younger son. Kit was born with Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic condition resulting in severe learning difficulties. Rankin says, “I was going through a time of asking ‘Why me?’ when a friend said to me, ‘Why not you? What makes you so special?’ ” Kit and his older brother no longer live at home, a change in Rankin’s life that perhaps permeates his latest novel, with its theme of fathers and sons, confronting each other and loving each other.

Fife-born Rankin, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, once studied Muriel Spark and worked toward a Ph.D. in literature but didn’t complete. He worked as a “grape-picker, a swineherd, a journalist for a hi-fi magazine, and a taxman” before the arrival on the scene of Inspector John Rebus in the 1987 novel Knots & Crosses. The character struck a chord. Writes a critic in The Guardian:  “Rebus is Every-Scottish-man, just as, in a way, he is Every-detective in the mold of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and all those other hard-living, deep-drinking loners of this genre. Yet it would be wrong to think of him as an empty vessel for these ideas and cliches. The whole thing works because Rankin has taken the archetypes and made them his own.” 

Rankin developed a routine for crafting his novels. He writes quickly, to retain the momentum that helps pace his books. The first draft “no one sees.” He then goes through and “tightens it up.” His wife reads the second, revised draft and offers him feedback. Once she gives the nod, the third–or fourth–draft goes to his editor. At that point, he’s not likely to make huge changes. Once, when asked to delete a character, he responded with: “It will make it a different book, not necessarily a better book.” His finished novels are full of richly imagined characters and details of modern Edinburgh life, but also driven by intricate mystery plots. “I use misdirection,” Rankin says. “I’m trying to hoodwink you.”

Ian Rankin

Rankin is also known for the way he uses music in his writing. Taste in music “delineates character–you will get age, psychology, interests.” His own tastes run from Joy Division and the Cure to David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. Rankin is proud of interviewing Van Morrison onstage for a short series of appearances this past summer, though admitting, with a laugh, “It was nerve wracking.” Rankin told The Quietus that the two tunes he’ll be having played at his funeral are “Silver Machine” by Hawkwind and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Stones. “I want people coming into the church to one and leaving to the other, I just can’t work out which way round.”

Rankin’s book titles are often taken from song titles and lyrics. “Even Dogs in the Wild” is the name of a 1980 song by the Scottish New Wave group the Associates. The band broke up for good after lead singer Billy McKenzie’s suicide in 1997. The song’s lyrics go “Somewhere deep in the night/There’s a child on his own/And his pulse isn’t there/And the house is aglow/With the light from outside.”

“It’s a song about loss,” Rankin says “It’s a song about childhood and relationships go wrong. It’s about the terrible things human beings do to each other even when they’ve been close to each other.”

EVEN DOGS IN THE WILD will be published January 19th in North America.

Nancy Bilyeau
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