‘Tartan Noir’ – was that your idea?
Ha! ‘Tartan Noir’ is a term I’m confident I invented, but I gave it to James Ellroy. I met him at a crime fiction convention in Nottingham many years ago and I wanted to get him to sign a book for me. I was explaining to him that I was a crime writer as well and wrote about Edinburgh and the darker side of Scottish life. I said, “You could call it Tartan Noir.” He laughed and signed the book to ‘the King of Tartan Noir’. So then I pretended that he’d invented it. But in fact, I told him and then he wrote it down. Chris Brookmyre nicked it after that and started using it.
Didn’t he call it chromatically impossible?
Yeah! Well, it is. It’s an oxymoron. Tartan can’t just be black otherwise it’s not a tartan. Anyway, I’ve still got my James Ellroy book upstairs so I can prove he wrote that on the book. Or somebody wrote it on the book… I can’t prove it was him.
Can you say what it means to you?
Tartan Noir – there’s no tradition of crime fiction in Scotland, but there is a great tradition of dark, psychological, Gothic horror stories. Specifically in ‘70s Glasgow, there was a move towards a realistic school of writing about working class life, writing about hard men, writing about hard lives, and writing about urban experience. So it was a move away from the ‘kaleyard’, which was this romanticised view of Scotland. I think crime fiction tapped into that very nicely, and because there was no tradition of crime fiction in Scotland it had a completely level playing field. Nobody had to be worried about writing in a certain tradition, and most of us weren’t influenced by the English.
I’d better speak for myself and not for anybody else: I certainly wasn’t influenced by the English crime novel, because I’d never read one. I’d never read any Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, or Dorothy L. Sayers, but I’d read a lot of Muriel Spark, which is very dark, and I’d read William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, some John Buchan, and Alistair MacLean, a Scottish thriller writer, very famous in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But because there was no Agatha Christie figure, you didn’t feel you were looking over your shoulder and had to write a certain kind of book.
So there’s a huge catholicism to Scottish crime fiction. If you look at the stuff Alexander McCall Smith, Kate Atkinson, and Alanna Knight are writing, and if you then look at the really dark stuff people like Stuart MacBride are writing, it seems to me there’s somebody writing in every sub-genre of crime fiction. When Paul Johnston started, he was writing crime novels set in a futuristic Edinburgh, so you have sci-fi crime fiction, historical crime fiction, you have comic crime fiction like Chris Brookmyre’s, psychological crime fiction like Denise Mina’s, cop novels like I’m writing… Other people are writing about private eyes, Allan Guthrie came along and seemed to enjoy writing about criminals rather than cops…
It just seemed there was room for all of that because we weren’t expected to write any particular kind of crime novel. But the balance has swung towards noir, quite dark fiction and I think that comes out of the fact that the current generation of crime writers has grown up with things like Hannibal Lecter, slasher movies, and Hollywood serial killers who are exaggerated in their means and motives. We’ve grown up with American cop shows on the television. We find crime fiction a very good way of writing about urban experience and society, about current affairs and politics, so we’re doing a lot more than just trying to tell a good story that will keep you engaged until the end of a train journey where you’ll go: “Ach, that’s who the killer was.” I think quite a lot of writers in Scotland aren’t that interested in the traditional notion of the English detective story, the structured novel that’s full of red herrings and in which the detective gets all the possible suspects together in the penultimate chapter to explain who did it and who didn’t do it.
There don’t seem to be many novels like that coming out of Scotland. They seem to be quite dark. They seem to be close to the Scandinavian model of crime fiction. When I read Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, however you pronounce their names, writing in Sweden and about Swedish society in the ‘60s, it seems very modern, and it seems to me very much like a lot of the stuff that’s coming out of Scotland at the moment. It’s not a school, because there are other writers who don’t fit that, but they’re still writing crime fiction, whether they like it or not.
Given the similarities between Scandinavian and Scottish crime fiction, is your shared popularity the product of Anglo-Saxon coolness and Northern innocence?
What I find about a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction is that it’s quite politically engaged. Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall were Marxists who were trying to write about what they felt was a decline in standards and civilisation in their country. I think there are several crime writers out there who are trying to do something similar to that, writers who are saying: “Look at the terrible mess we’re in. How the hell did we get here?”
These are also introspective countries where the people are quite inward looking. If you watch Kenneth Branagh doing Wallander on television you get a sense of that. This guy is just angsty. We do like a good angsty detective, and we think of Scandinavia as a place where you can do Angst well. By the same token, I think you can do it very well in Scotland because the Scots have this Jekyll and Hyde thing going on. We can be lovely one minute, but give us some alcohol and suddenly we turn into monsters. We hide our feelings a lot of the time. It’s weird, isn’t it? We’re all supposed to be Celts, but you look at Ireland where everybody’s so chatty and friendly. Glaswegians are, but you go elsewhere in Scotland and everybody’s reserved. They’d rather say nothing than say the wrong thing.
Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses?
It’s hilarious. I used to see it in tutorials all the time. All the students from Scottish working-class comprehensive school backgrounds would sit there and say nothing for the whole course of a tutorial. Then there’d be all these really chatty English folk who were very self-confident and self-aware, and even if they didn’t know the answer they would say something. And then all the wee working class Scots would be writing everything down that they said. It was about two and a half years before I spoke in a tutorial, but once I started you couldn’t shut me up.
Why didn’t it take you as long to find your narrative voice?
I was writing from a very young age. I was trying to do comics and strip cartoons and song lyrics from before I was a teenager, and then in my mid-teens I was writing song lyrics and poetry, so when I came to Edinburgh University, I was a poet. I’d had one poem published. I’d won second prize in a competition, so I’d been published in a magazine. That was me. I thought: “This is what I’m doing.” But the poems were telling stories. The poems were not emotion recollected in tranquillity. They were narratives. So when a short story competition was announced, I went in for it and won second prize, and then the next year I won a short story competition and thought: “Oh, I can do this!” So I moved away from poetry into short stories, and then that smoothed the way for a transition to the novel.
After a couple of novels, one of which was never published, I came up with Rebus without having really read any crime fiction at all, with the possible exception of William McIlvanney and some film tie-ins, things like Shaft and maybe The French Connection and The Godfather. I’d read those because they were films, but McIlvanney was important because of Laidlaw which came along just as I was getting an inkling of writing a dark, contemporary take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. All the way through Knots And Crosses, you’re supposed to think Rebus, the detective, is potentially the killer – he just doesn’t know it.
Hard to fool people with that these days, when they know there are 17 Rebus novels. He’s probably not the bad guy in the first book, but it was never meant to be a series, and I was reluctant to even see it as crime fiction. At that time, crime fiction was very much the poor relation. You’d go into a book shop and struggle to find a crime section. It was tucked away at the back of the shop somewhere.
Is it true that when you first saw Knots And Crosses in a bookshop, you moved a copy from the crime section to where you thought it should be shelved?
Yeah. I wanted it to be in Scottish literature at the front of the shop beside Spark and Stevenson and McIlvanney. I went back the next day and they’d moved it back to the crime section. This is going back to 1987, so it’s going back quite some time.
After all those years, are you tired of being seen as the guy who writes Rebus?
Well, I’m not the guy who writes Rebus anymore. I wrote the last Rebus novel about three years ago. Of course, every time I do a gig I get asked if I’m going to bring back Rebus: “When are we going to see him again?” I get emails from people saying: “I like your books post-Rebus, but when are we going to get another Rebus book?”
Rebus was, and remains, a useful character. He’s a useful means of looking at society. He’s a useful prism through which you can show all the different aspects of human life, because a detective, unlike almost any other character in fiction, has access to every area, every layer of society. So if you want to write about politicians, big business, backhanders, and corruption, but you also want to write about the dispossessed and disenfranchised folk living on the edge, folk living on housing benefit, and folk with drug problems, you can do all of that with this one character, because he can explore all of that and everybody’s got to open their door to him.
So I do think a detective is a very good tool for opening up the world and exploring it. That’s what I think I try to do in the books. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle of modern Scotland. Whether it’s local politics, national politics, the economy, the country’s history and possible future, racism, or religious bigotry, all these things can very easily be tackled in crime fiction. The slightly frustrating thing is that you can’t show that the world is also a very nice place, because your detective tends not to be dealing with happy shiny people. Your detective is dealing with suspects and grieving relatives, which is frustrating when you live in Edinburgh. I mean, look at how nice it is.
Having written about those happy shiny people in a couple of successful short story collections, would you write more of them if there was a bigger market?
Probably. The short story is a nice form. It’s like a little jewel. You can hold the shape of it in your head – you can’t with a novel – and they’re really good to read. I enjoy reading short stories or listening to them in the car, and I enjoy writing them, but I don’t know whether I could ever get enough ideas to be a fulltime short story writer. You’d want to get a story published every single week. You’d have to have 52 good ideas, whereas writing a novel you only have to have one good idea a year – maybe two: plot and subplot.
Then, at the end of two or three days’ work, you’ve got something you’ve physically made that nobody’s made before. That’s one of the wonderful things about writing. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, there are only so many words in the language, and yet everybody can write a sentence that’s never been written before. Think how incredible that is. You can sit and write a sentence that nobody in the entire history of human existence has written before. That’s the great challenge as well: trying to write something different – do something that’s not been done before.
Doing English at University, you’re told there are seven basic plots, and you go: “Well, I’m fucked then. I can do seven books and that’ll be it.” But then you learn that these seven plots are actually completely malleable and interchangeable. There might only be seven basic plots but the well of stories is inexhaustible. When I was younger, plots were flying at me. I was very receptive to them. I’d walk down the street and I’d get an idea for a story because I would hear or see something. In the end, I tried to switch off because I was getting more ideas than I could possibly use. It’s hard to sort them out and decide which ones to write and which ones not to write.
Early in his career, James Ellroy noticed he could execute anything he could envisage. Can you?
Yes, but he hit a wall. Well, did he hit a wall? He told me once that when he wrote White Jazz, the linguistic experimentation in that book was so extreme, he actually lost readers. People weren’t buying it because it was too hard to read, so he back-pedalled a wee bit after that. The narrative became more fluid and the language became slightly less opaque. But yeah, there’s no doubt that he gets big ideas and is able to execute them. I’ve got storylines upstairs that I’ve not used yet because I can’t think how the hell to do it.
Things like, you want to write from an eight-year old boy’s point of view and I’m going: “Well, can I? Would it be realistic? Could I make it realistic? That’s awfully hard, I’ll try something else.”
Does such professionalism come with a risk?
I think you can fall into a trap. If you’ve got a very successful career in one genre with one character, it’s very easy just to keep on writing stories that are slightly different from previous stories but just different enough so they don’t put off your publisher or your reader. I’m sure every crime fan in the world can name writers who probably should have stopped by now or tried something new.
Do you regret making Rebus old when the series was young?
Ha! Limiting the life span of the series… Well, he had to be 40 in the first book, because he had to have had a previous life that he’d managed to block out. Time had to have passed. Young man, training for the SAS, something terrible happens, and he’s able to push it to the back of his mind or stick it into a compartment and not think about it again. So I thought: “How long would have passed? Probably the best part of 15 or 20 years.” I totalled that up and thought: “That makes him about 40.”
When I thought it was only going to be one book, that decision didn’t matter, but then about three or four books into the series, I decided: “He’s actually going to age in real time. He’s not going to be preserved in aspic the way a lot of detectives are in fiction.” That way I could realistically show the changing nature of Edinburgh. Some time has passed from his first adventure set in ’87, so we get the parliament, we get the G8 coming to town, and you can show the changes that are taking place in Edinburgh and in Scottish society, but then you come up against that eventual problem: “When does he have to retire?”
I thought he’d probably have to retire at 65. It was a cop who told me: “No, it’s 60 for detectives: mandatory retirement.” So I totalled it up and thought: “Hang on, in ’87 he’s 40. That means in 2007 he’s 60. So 2007’s book has to be his retirement book.” It was as straightforward as that. I’d given myself a problem, but the answer to the problem was for him to retire. It doesn’t mean he’d stop being a cop. I know what he’s doing. He’s working in the cold case unit at Fettes Police Head Quarters in a team of four: one serving police officer and three retired detectives who look at old unsolved murders. Perfect for Rebus…
Read the other 10,000 words of this interview in The Crime Interview: Ian Rankin for Mr Rankin’s thoughts on the rewards and regrets of a life in letters. That, and bringing Rebus back in Standing in Another Man’s Grave: A John Rebus Novel
CLICK HERE FOR THE ONE BOOK EVERYBODY SHOULD READ: The Crime Interview: Ian Rankin