In the fifth volume of his My Struggle series, on the last page, Karl Ove Knausgaard describes what he did immediately after a final, shattering meeting with his first wife before separating: ‘I was on the night train to Oslo, everything I did on the journey was to avoid thinking.
I read one newspaper after another, afterwards I read a novel by Ian Rankin, the first crime novel I had read for twenty years, until I was so tired I would fall asleep the second I closed my eyes. In Oslo, I bought another Rankin novel, changed trains, destination Stockholm this time, boarded and started to read.’
From reading Knausgaard’s memoirs, I’ve learned much about life in Scandinavia; about how difficult it is to rent decent apartments in Stockholm, the extent to which men are expected to contribute to childcare in Sweden, and what irritates Norwegians about their neighbour.
What might Knausgaard have learned from reading Rankin’s novels about another small, oil-producing, north European country whose crime writers have an international following?
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Knots & Crosses, the first novel in Rankin’s Rebus series. Centred on Rankin’s detective protagonist, the harddrinking, hardboiled Detective Inspector John Rebus, the Rebus novels now number twenty, with the most recent, Rather Be the Devil, published in 2016. The span of the series ‘straddles industrial and post-industrial Scotland’ (as Rebus writes in his 2005 semi-autobiography Rebus’s Scotland), a period of political, economic, technological and social change, that has affected Scotland as much as any other part of the world. In that time, Scotland once more has a national Parliament (the setting for his 2000 novel Set in Darkness), as well as fumbling a referendum on independence (Rebus voted no).
Rankin was a 24-year-old English literature postgraduate when he began writing the first Rebus novel, not that it was conceived as a series; in Knots & Crosses’ first draft, Rebus died. Rebus – a picture-puzzle – is just the type of slightly pretentious name you’d expect a post-grad to give his ’tec hero. The first Rebus novel was published in 1987, with its follow-up, Hide & Seek, not published until 1991. Between, Rankin published two novels whose sales were such, his publisher suggested he might want to revisit Rebus’ Edinburgh.
He has said that he returned to Rebus for reasons other than avoiding being dropped. ‘I started the Rebus books in order to make sense of Edinburgh.’ Who better to get to the bottom of the mystery of Scotland than a detective? ‘Rebus was a tough enough creation to lead the reader into an investigation of Scotland itself: a small, proud and ancient country with a confused and fragile sense of its own identity.’ Rebus’s view of his adopted hometown Edinburgh – like Rankin, he’s originally from Cardenden, in Fife – is laid out in Knots & Crosses and has remained consistent across the twenty novels: ‘Edinburgh was a schizophrenic city, the place of Jekyll & Hyde sure enough, the city of Deacon Brodie, of fur coats and no knickers.’
The Rebus novels are self-consciously modelled on the dualities that characterise the capital’s history and literature, and which is encoded in the very topography of the city, its Old and New Town. The true duality explored in Rebus’s novels, however, is his portrait of the city as both exceptional and typical. While Edinburgh’s divided soul is formed by its past, its present is shaped by external, global pressures.
The 2005 G8 summit at Gleneagles forms the backdrop to The Naming of the Dead (2006), its plot structured by the events of that week, which saw London win the bid to host the 2012 Olympics, terrorists bomb the Tube, and thousands of protestors descend on Edinburgh to ‘Make Poverty History’. The novel links a revenge plot with a larger story of political and corporate corruption, ending on the suggestion, as often happens in the Rebus series, that those who should be jailed won’t be. ‘You’ve seen it here this week,’ Rebus says at the conclusion. ‘How the rich and powerful operate…how they get away with anything they like.’
In other novels, we see what the petrochemical industry does to a Scottish city (Aberdeen, in 2008’s Black and Blue), the pressures immigration places on the capital’s sink estates (2004’s Fleshmarket Close), and the potentially corrupting influence Russian finance might have on Edinburgh (2007’s Exit Music). A Russian (actually, a Ukrainian) hitman appears in Rather Be the Devil, a cartoonish Eastern European gangster who threatens decapitation with a sword. We’ve travelled quite a distance from the second Rebus novel, Hide & Seek, where the villains are a group of local businessmen running an illegal club fight. In Rather Be the Devil, the antagonists operate shell companies registered in Edinburgh which launder money from around the world. Rebus’s Scotland is one in which wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, with the power that comes with riches used corruptly. In which case, Scotland is no different from any other country in the world, which may explain the series’ international popularity: the books have been translated into 26 languages, including, pace Knausgaard, Norwegian. Indeed, Rankin’s fiction and so-called ‘Scandinavian Noir’ have a great deal in common, from their bleak settings to their use of crime fiction to advance social critiques.
An occasional theme Rankin has explored, not unique to Scotland, but at least relatively rare in contemporary Europe, is sectarianism. In Mortal Causes (1994), loyalist paramilitaries ally with fringe Scottish nationalist groups (let us pass over the thought homegrown extremists would likely have more in common with Irish republicans). This case drew upon Rebus’s backstory, particularly his time as a soldier in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. ‘Of course, there wasn’t nearly so much racism in Scotland,’ Rebus thinks in Tooth & Nail (1992). ‘There was no need: the Scots had bigotry instead.’ Rankin clearly sets store by the line; it’s repeated in Fleshmarket Close, voiced now by Dirwan, an activist lawyer: ‘I think Scotland was complacent for many years: we don’t have room for racism, we’re too busy with bigotry.’
The Rebus series is frequently drawn to Edinburgh’s schemes, which, interestingly, given Rankin’s general insistence on using real places (as well as ageing Rebus in real time), are often fictional if based on real schemes: Pilmuir, Garibaldi, the improbably named Knoxland. These no-go areas are loci of various failures that have dogged Scotland for centuries: failures of economics intersecting with failures of decency. And as Rankin sees it, Scots have grown so used to failure, they take a perverse pride in it. ‘We’re just not supposed to have it all, are we?’ Rankin writes in Dead Souls (1999). ‘We’re supposed to fail gloriously. Anything we succeed at, we keep low profile. It’s our failures we’re allowed to trumpet…It’s almost as if we enjoy failure.’ This sense of failure has seeped into Rebus’s character, the DI seeing himself ‘like the Scots [who] knew their job was to be footballers with more ambition than ability. They’d put it on his gravestone.’
So….Scotland, a country of divisions, of Catholic and Protestant, of poor and rich, and, most resonantly, past and present, its deep history feeding a national inferiority complex. This is the Scotland a reader of Rankin’s twenty Rebus novels is familiar with. Residents of Auld Reekie, however, might just pause and ask: isn’t this portrait of Scotland old hat?
Some writers’ visions of the cities they chronicle are so vividly realised, we never see that city again in quite the same light; Joyce’s Dublin, Alasdair Gray’s Glasgow, Iain Sinclair’s London. In Tooth & Claw, Rebus, we learn, is reading Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd’s genre-mashing detective novel. Hawksmoor was inspired by Sinclair’s ‘occult histories’, which draw upon London lore, close reading of obscure books by locals, and ‘psychogeographical’ expeditions into ‘the territory’ to reveal the city’s true nature. Occasionally, in the early days, Rankin suggested he had at least something vaguely similar in mind. In Hide & Seek, Rebus dismisses visitors to the city who ‘can’t read its symbolic connotations, never mind its reality’. Rebus’s Scotland takes as its epigraph these resonant lines by MacDiarmid: ‘It takes a great love of it deeply to read / This configuration of a land, / Gradually grow conscious of fine shadings, / Of great meanings in slight symbols.’
In practice, Rankin’s actual musings on the city’s streets have tended towards the workaday. ‘Ann Street was reckoned to be the most beautiful terrace in the city. Tucked away between Queensferry Road and Stockbridge, its two elegant facing rows of Georgian homes were separated by a narrow roadway constructed of traditional setts.’
One occasionally wonders whether one is reading a detective novel or a TripAdvisor entry: ‘Prestonfield House Hotel was one of the city’s better-kept secrets. Surrounded by 1930s bungalows with views across to the schemes of Craigmillar and Niddrie, it seemed an unpromising location for a grand house in the baronial style.’ Rankin’s tendency to drop into tourist-guide mode can be inadvertently funny. In Knots & Crosses, even while sprinting across town to save his daughter from a serial killer, Rebus / Rankin can’t help himself: ‘From his flat in Marchmont to the Library could be a delightful walk, showing the strengths of Edinburgh as a city. He passed a verdant open area called The Meadows…’.
If not a psychogeographer, Ian Rankin can be described as a synthesist. His Edinburgh is as much patched together from writers who’ve preceded him as it is the product of fresh observation; it is still recognisably the city as viewed by the postgraduate literary student he was when he began writing the series. Rankin’s emphasis on divisions draws on the writings of G. Gregory Smith on the ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’, first coined in 1919. A century on, the ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’ has become a one-size-fits-all explanation, a cliché whose conceptual neatness appeals but is inadequate to the task of describing contemporary Scotland.
Speaking of clichés, while researching this piece, I encountered the argument, more than once, that the modern crime novel, as typified by the Rebus series, had trumped the literary novel through its willingness to explore the areas of contemporary existence that your average Booker nominee wouldn’t touch. No doubt, for some, Rankin’s determinedly average prose (‘The librarian’s voice was trembling, along with the rest of her’) could be mistaken for a no-frills slice of social realism.
The passages in Hide & Seek set in slummy ‘Pilmuir’ suggest the younger Rankin fancied himself a chronicler of urban ills, although compared with a book published two years later by another local, Trainspotting, the Pilmuir passages are stagey. The odd slang word aside, Rankin’s Scots rarely talk in a manner actual Scots would recognise as authentic. Even schemies are apt to say ‘I don’t know’, rather than ‘Ah dinnae ken’. Rankin relates his decision to eschew the urban demotic back to the day he tried to interest his father in the novels of James Kelman: ‘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.’
Again, this seems a rather old-fashioned attitude in the wake of Trainspotting’s international success, and undermines the series’ claim to chart Scotland’s evolution these past thirty years. Rankin ended the Rebus series in 2007 when his character reached the age of retirement. In the manner of Conan Doyle and the post-Reichenbach Holmes, the author – and his fans – couldn’t let his character be, and in 2012 Rebus returned in Standing in Another Man’s Grave. Quite how much longer the series can credibly continue is a moot point. Rebus is in his sixties, health compromised by the appropriately-acronymed COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), yet he can still pop in and out of the local station to meddle in cases as easily as when he was employed there. The series has often depended on some credibility-stretching coincidences to bring their mysteries to conclusion, but even admirers will drop the series when Rebus starts chasing suspects on a mobility scooter.