Despite his modest protests, crime novelist Ian Rankin – best-known for the creation of curmudgeonly detective John Rebus – is a man who knows his whisky. In conversation with Dave Broom, he recalls his earliest whisky memories, unpicks the evolution of Rebus, and shares some of the highs and lows of his life.
I’m sitting in the library of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s (SMWS) Queen Street venue on a quiet, sunny Sunday afternoon, ready to talk murder and discover how a boy from working-class Cardenden in Fife became one of Britain’s top crime novelists.
It’s been 30 years since Ian Rankin’s detective John Rebus first appeared. Since then there have been 21 novels, short stories, a television and radio series. The books are set texts in Scottish schools. To celebrate Rebus’ three decades, this summer Edinburgh will host RebusFest, while Highland Park has also released a special bottling.
A glass of malt is never far from Rebus’ hand as he sits in the chaos of his flat, grimly seething and musing over a case. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Rankin knows his whisky, so it seemed a good idea to use six drams as waypoints in his life. As I said, just a quiet Sunday.
We kick off with a Bowmore, a dram that takes him back to his working-class upbringing in Cardenden in Fife. ‘My dad’s favourite. One year I bought him a bottle of Bowmore for Christmas. It was me, the first member of the family to go to university, being sophisticated. “I’m taking the Bell’s off you. Now you’ll drink malt!”.’ He laughs. ‘It was me being patronising to my own father.’
What were you like?
‘Very chameleon-like. As a teenager, I’d hang around in my Dr Martens with the other kids, and when they’d go off to fight the next village I’d go back home and write. Here’s this bookish kid, writing poems to girls that he can’t talk to and creating an alternative universe. Playing God, but I thought my destiny was to be a rock star. It still is. I’m still a young man… younger than Mick Jagger.’
Music is a constant presence in the books – all the Rebus novels are named after song titles. At one point he breaks off the chat to show me pictures of him and Jimmy Page. ‘You’re still a fanboy?’ I ask. ‘Totally,’ replies the man who has done stage shows with Van Morrison and Jackie Leven (of whom more later).
It seemed sensible, therefore, for each dram to be accompanied by a significant tune. Bowmore is paired with Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s (SAHB) Boston Tea Party. ‘They had this cartoonish quality with an undercurrent of violence and dystopia. I’d be writing short stories of Cardenden in a dystopian future, song lyrics, and poems that were SAHB-type songs. When you’re young you hoover up influences.’
Cultural significance: Music plays a central role in Ian Rankin’s novels
By the time he went to study English Literature at Edinburgh University he was a published poet: ‘A poem called Euthanasia. I was, even then, of a cheery disposition.’ But fiction began to take over. And this young sophisticate went straight into malt? ‘Pretty much.’
That said, Rankin’s next dram is Jameson in tandem with I Won’t Let You Down by PhD, the soundtrack to a summer abroad he and girlfriend (now wife) Miranda took after university. ‘We were hitch-hiking in Italy, where we were picked up by some Irish lorry drivers. Every night the Jameson would come out. Every whisky has a story attached to it.’
Is that contained within the whisky?
‘There’s that French thing, terroir, where a wine gives you a sense of a whole culture. I think whisky does that. Possibly we don’t make enough of that in Scotland. Maybe it’s because we miss that one word.’
Music seems to do the same for you and Rebus.
‘It’s a way of delineating character. When the first thing you see of Rebus is him sitting in his living room listening to John Martyn, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen or Van Morrison, you go: “Ok, this is not a party animal.” The fact he prefers the Stones to the Beatles means he’s of a certain age and a bit of a rebel. It gives an inkling of class, age and psychology.’
The flawed loner cop is a stock character in crime fiction, but Rankin has imbued Rebus with a rarely-found complexity. Rebus may be cynical, but he operates with his own rigid sense of morality. He’s cranky and misanthropic, but with a black sense of humour; a hard man with a soft heart who sits in pubs with chips on both shoulders.
Where did he come from? ‘I’d been into Polygon to sign the contract for my first book The Flood and went back to our flat in Arden St (where Rebus lives). Staring at the gas fire, I got this notion of a guy getting cryptic messages from someone who was important to him in the past who he had managed to block out. The name came slightly later. A “rebus” is a picture puzzle. I thought it was a really clever thing to call a detective “puzzle”.’
Are the books state-of-the-nation novels in which the crime often seems secondary to what Rebus uncovers about Scottish society and its changing attitudes and prejudices?
Moral compass: Rankin says crime fiction tackles the big, serious moral questions in society
‘I think they are. Crime fiction at its best takes on some big, serious moral questions, but does it in a way that’s not po-faced and on a soap box. Each of the novels is a piece of the jigsaw and, at the end of the series, you’ll get an impression of what Scotland was like at the end of the 20th century.
‘Also, in my early 20s no-one was writing about contemporary Edinburgh. It was all Glasgow – Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Liz Lochhead, Agnes Owens, William McIlvanney. There was no equivalent on the east.’
It also taps into that theme of good and evil, which runs through Scottish literature.
‘Which is where Muriel Spark [the subject of Rankin’s unfinished PhD, which helped fund the first three novels] comes in. Her character, Jean Brodie, is descended from Deacon William Brodie [the real-life, respected cabinet maker by day, burglar by night, who was hanged on a gibbet of his own design].
‘In Robert Louis Stevenson’s bedroom was a wardrobe which had been made by Brodie. His nursemaid told him stories about this man who was good and evil, which took me to Jekyll & Hyde, which then took me to [James] Hogg’s Justified Sinner.
‘There’s this extraordinary tradition of dark, Gothic novels in Scotland which was a huge influence – especially the earlier Rebus’ which are a lot darker.’
It seems strange at this juncture to be playing Spandau Ballet’s soulful ballad True, accompanied by a brace of gentle Glen Grants, the distillery at the end of an impromptu driving trip he took with an American friend. The song was picked as it was a soundtrack to the trip. Here was me thinking it was the lyric: ‘Why do I find it hard to write the next line?’
‘Writer’s block? No. That’s just you! Once I get started on a story then it seems to just fly and takes me with it. When I start, I know as much as my detective. By the fourth, it’s me making it look like it was always meant to happen and I was in control all the time.
‘I also use Rebus like a punching bag. When my youngest son was born disabled, the first thing I did was put Rebus’ daughter in a wheelchair. I took him to his lowest point. He was in a fist fight with his best friend on The Meadows, ending up on their hands and knees, snivelling, snot coming out of their noses, knackered. That was me dealing with it.’
Road trip: Glen Grant reminds Rankin of when he and a friend drove around Scotland
Sips. Nods. Time to move on.
Next comes a pairing of the late Scottish singer-songwriter John Martyn's Solid Air and Highland Park. ‘There’s all kinds of synergies going on here. I knew Rebus would be a fan of John Martyn. Late night in Arden St, this is what he’d be listening to.’
And drinking Highland Park?
‘It’s what he drinks the most in the series, but he’s not a connoisseur. The whisky depends on what mood he is in.’
Have his tastes changed as yours have?
‘He was in the Paras, served in Northern Ireland. He’d have been a Bell’s drinker, but later on, with more money and his palate changing, he switched. It’s the difference between sitting in a bar with your Army mates and drinking on your own in your flat listening to John Martyn. When he’s had a hard day at the office and he goes back to his flat, he is going to sit down with a decent malt.’
He adds water to the dram. Takes a sip. ‘This is opening up nicely.’
‘I always love visiting Orkney. We were talking about terroir. When you stand at the Ring of Brodgar, it could be 2,000 years ago. Time has stood still. I get a sense of that when I drink this. All that history and mystery.’
Talk turns to another Scottish singer-songwriter, Jackie Leven, who, after his songs began appearing on the late-night Rebus playlist, contacted Rankin. And so began a working relationship, which included stage shows, 2004’s CD Jackie Leven Said, and ended with Leven’s sudden death from cancer in 2011.
‘We were supposed to be doing an event and his manager phoned up, said Jackie couldn’t make it. Three days later he was dead. He just got a bottle of whisky and went for a walk. That’s how he dealt with the diagnosis. He was a lovely man.’
We listen to Leven’s Exit Wound with a pair of Laphroaigs. ‘It’s a whisky which might be too intense for some, but when Mr Rebus isn’t listening to John Martyn, he’ll be drinking Laphroaig and listening to Jackie Leven. He had an album called Fairy Tales for Hard Men – that’s Rebus.’
Flying along: Once Rankin embarks upon a Rebus novel, the story takes him with it
At the time the books seem less about solving a crime, but about exposing corruption and the malign influence of privilege.
‘A cop is a great character because you can look at society from top to bottom, about corruption but also about the dispossessed and disenfranchised. Rebus is an anarchist. If you’re a small-time crook and you are doing it to put food on the table, he’ll give you a bit of a break. If you’re a head of a corporation or a banker who does it because he thinks he can get away with it, he ain’t going to let go until you are in a court room.’
How has he evolved over 30 years?
‘He’s a different character now. Each book is a standalone because he is changing, and Scotland has changed. That’s what keeps it fresh. It’s not 21 books with the same person. You said it, he’s evolved. He’s in a good place, other than the fact his health is falling apart. He’s 65.’
Have you worked out the exit?
‘No. He’s not dead yet. I asked a doctor friend what the diagnosis would be if Rebus walked in, and it was grotesque. I gave him COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) but that was almost the least of it. He has mortality tapping him on the shoulder.’ A sip of the Laphroaig is accompanied by a smile. ‘I’m the same. My hearing’s going, eyesight’s going, grey hairs sprouting. I’m falling apart by degrees.’
But you’re younger.
‘Aye, but Rebus didn’t put his head in the bass bin at Hawkwind gigs.’
It’s time for the final dram. He chose Glenfiddich because it was late Scottish writer Iain Banks’ favourite.
He pauses. Shakes his head. ‘There’s a lot of dead people involved in this… It was Iain who used to take half-a-dozen of us writers to the Society in Leith, or go to great Edinburgh whisky bars. We’d have an uproarious night together. So, I’m drinking this in his memory and though I quite like Al Stewart Roads to Moscow, it’s what Iain chose on Desert Island Discs.”
Fond favourite: Glenfiddich always reminds Rankin of his friend and late author Iain Banks
You lost two close friends within two years.
‘It was devastating. Made me rethink my life. I took a year off. Miranda said: “Walk away, start enjoying yourself again.” I re-evaluated my attitude to writing.’
In what way?
‘Trying not to look at it like a job. I started writing because I loved it. On that year out I didn’t write at all for six months. Then I started to write tiny, wee, short stories just for me, which took me back to when I was a student. I fell in love with it again and decided it is what I wanted to do.’
But it had got to that stage?
‘A few years back my accountant said you don’t need to work again, but you never say that to a writer because we don’t write for the money. You write to make sense of the world, how you communicate with the world, and because it’s fun – and it keeps you young. Writers are just kids who never grew up. You’re still playing with your imaginary friends.’
It’s a way to stop mortality tapping you on the shoulder?
‘I was 19 when my Mum died. My Dad died when I was 29. From an early stage I thought writing is immortality.’
Has your audience aged with you?
‘It seems to me crime readers have always been older, but lot of young writers are now attracted to the form and they bring young readers. I do feel old guard. I was young, dark and dangerous, now I’m the establishment. Fuck! How did that happen?’ He drums the table and laughs, starts on the Glenfiddich. ‘It’s back to that thing about whisky and memories. There’s no way I could drink Glenfiddich and not think of Iain.’
Puzzle pieces: Rankin says he still hasn’t come to fully understand Edinburgh
Is crime fiction also about memory?
‘It’s two things. It’s me making sense of the present and then looking back. A lot of crime fiction is predicated on the past. Someone thinks they got away with something, but crimes have to be paid for. A lot of crime fiction is about why people do terrible things.’
Not only justice?
‘No, it’s more asking why do we human beings keep doing terrible things? All literature comes back to that notion of us having the potential for good and for evil, and what stops us doing one or the other. The Rebus series is me saying to him: “You see the world in black and white, and I see it in subtle shades of grey.” He’s not me. He’s an Old Testament version of me.’
So you’ve not made sense of the world yet?
‘I’ve not made sense of Edinburgh yet. Every time I think I have, something changes or I find something I didn’t know about before. It’s a fascinating city, a Jekyll & Hyde city with a veneer of respectability, but that veneer is very thin. Scratch away and you discover all the dark stuff that the tourist doesn’t know about.’
The last glass is emptied. He sits back. ‘This is lovely. This is mature drinking.’ He pauses again. Looks at his watch. ‘I’m not writing this afternoon. I might just pop up to the Oxford for a pint.’
He shakes my hand and walks into the Edinburgh streets again.
With thanks to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for the use of their rooms at Queen Street and drams.
Ian Rankin’s latest Rebus novel, Rather be the Devil, is published by Orion.
RebusFest runs between 30 June and 1 July. Details at www.ianrankin.com.