Ian Rankin crosses the stage, looking every inch what you expect of a crime writer. He sits down, takes a sip of whiskey and examines the audience with the same shrewd gaze you can imagine his detective, John Rebus, uses to survey a crime scene. When he speaks, the voice that captures your attention is eerily similar to the one that narrates his novels, marked with the same dry wit and sharp retorts. All he needs is a cigarette and a typewriter.
Fittingly, the talk begins with a discussion on mortality. A fascination with death is undoubtedly a prerequisite for a crime novelist. But it is not gruesome murders that dominate this conversation: it is the fact that both Rebus and Rankin are growing older. Here we get an insight into the longevity of Rankin’s series. With the 30-year anniversary of the first Rebus novel approaching, it is natural to wonder how Rankin can continue writing a book a year: and a good one at that. Rebus may have retired, but he certainly has not realised that – as Rankin takes great pleasure in telling us. He seems to enjoy the challenges that aging brings to Rebus’s detective work. Gone are the days when he could chase after criminals, gone is even his right to. Now Rankin gleefully torments his character, making him quit smoking, giving him heart disease, and getting him to take out old murder files he (illegally) keeps in his flat. Listening to Rankin talk about Rebus is a delight for any fan. He speaks about him like you might an old friend; someone you know so well, you know what he would do in any situation, and one he appears to enjoy spending time with, even after 30 years.
Lee Randall, writer and critic, is the lucky one in conversation with Rankin onstage. And she does her job well. For the most part, she keeps quiet and allows Rankin to speak, as he does with ease. The discussion ranges from the specifics of his writing to commentary on more general things, such as the ebook industry and the disappearance of certain pubs around Edinburgh. Rankin is not a fan of either. Some guidance gives the talk a structure that still feels natural, or as natural as a conversation can be with an audience.
Randall skilfully steers the conversation towards Edinburgh. She makes the audience feel like they are in on a kind of secret, a common ground shared with Rankin and Rebus. Saying that his favourite joke to use is to have people mispronounce Sciennes gets a good laugh, and a better one when he points out that the joke does not work on paper. The Rebus novels are known for their detailed descriptions of the city, and it is within this that Rankin seems to suggest the novels find the ability to stay relevant. He talks about the fast-changing nature of the city, and the changes that have proven to be problematic (at least for a crime writer); crime-rates are lower, and even the changing practice of police work has thwarted old narrative devices. He leaves us with the impression that there is a never-ending flow of stories for Rebus in Edinburgh, and many years, books (and anniversaries) still to come.
As well as providing a thoroughly enjoyable evening, Rankin has proved himself to be a man who is clearly still passionate about his work, and personable enough to make us care.
Photo credit: Mosman Library