Two centuries ago a poet called it 'that most picturesque at a distance and nastiest when near of all capital cities.' Edinburgh: a city of shadowed alleys and brooding skies. The perfect landscape for a crime writer:
You know that it's all very respectable on the surface, but underneath it's all kind of seething, kind of sin and debauchery are just around the corner. I've put bodies at the top of the Scot monument. I've had bodies found in Parliament Square. They're all great locations.
Here in the Scottish capital, Ian Rankin writes about "the unlawful killing of one human being by another." At 37, Ian Rankin is British crime writing's rising star. James Ellroy has called him "The king of tartan noir."
Rankin was just out of college when he created his fictional detective: Inspector John Rebus of the Lothian & Borders police. There are nine Rebus mysteries now including Strip Jack, Let It Bleed and Black & Blue.
Rankin: I had learned a detective is really a very good tool in fiction for an investigation of society. Because they have access to the highest of the high and the lowest of the low.
How low? How about underground - down three or four stories beneath street level to an abandoned alley called Mary Kings Close. It was lived in until 1897. A few years ago, Rankin was introduced to this Edinburgh of an earlier age. It was the ideal metaphor for his hidden city.
Legend has it that people originally left here because of the bubonic plague, which started in this particular close in 1645 and spread from here through the rest of the city.
Mary King's Close was left empty for almost a century. A new city was ultimately built on top of it. The history of Mary King's Clos eventually was written to reflect an evil place - a place where one can see the ghost of a little girl about 8 or 9 years old. Then in his private tour of this underworld, Rankin came upon a room:
Rankin: ...It was this kind of vaulted roof with all these black, rusty hooks. And I thought, 'Well, (laughs) I've got to put a body there.' You know it's perfect.
He had stumbled on the opening scene for his novel Mortal Causes.
Rankin (reading): The place wasn't damp or chilled or cobwebbed. The air seemed fresh. Yet they were 3 or 4 stories beneath road level. Arebus took the torch and shone it through a doorway. There was blood everywhere, a fact made all too plain as the arc lamp suddenly came on sweeping light and shadows across the walls and roof. There was the faint smell of decay. But no flies, thank God.
Born in a dying coal-mining town called Cardenden, Rankin's father worked in a dockyard and his mother in a factory canteen. He was the first in his family to go off to college. He'd already escaped in his head.
Rankin: The imagination, I think, was very important, because in Cardendane, there was very little to do. You had to escape the place mentally. You had to make up your own little world, and then inhabit it. And so I became very adept at fantasizing, that, you know, that the town had been overrun by Germans, or everybody was a robot except me, or whatever.
At first, he worked odd jobs - in a chicken factory, as an alcohol researcher, and as a tax collector for Britain's equivalent of the IRS:
Rankin: Yeah! Inland revenue. Yeah, I sat in an office in Edinburgh and I demanded money from people in the southeast of England. Rich people. I thought that was one of the best jobs I'd ever had.
Mason: How long did your career as a punk singer last?
Rankin: About six months, I think.
Ian was also the former lead singer of The Dancing Pigs. Regrettably, The Dancing Pigs disbanded. But they reappear in Rankin's latest novel, Black & Blue, and suddenly they're at the top of the charts.
Rankin: It's all wish fulfillment when you think about it. I mean this whole thing is - writing books. That's why I can have a really boring life, I think. Because I just go at the books and make up this very exciting life, you know. I can run around doing this and that. I can change history. I can change the world.
In Black & Blue, Rankin resurrects a notorious serial killer who haunted Scotland in the '60s. Bible John murdered three women. He was never caught:
Rankin: (reading) People in Glasgow still talked about him. Bible John was the bedtime bogeyman made fresh, a generation's scare story. He was your creepy next door neighbor, the quiet man who lived two flights up. He was whoever you wanted him to be. Back in the early '70s, parents had told their children 'behave or Bible John will get you!' Bogeyman made flesh and now reproducing.
Rebus's haunts are also Rankin's. His fictinal Edinburgh is very real:
Rankin: Like, Rebus's flat in Arden Street really does exist. And the Oxford Bar where he drinks really does exist. They had a Scandinavian tourist in there the other week who tracked down the Oxford Bar. And he said, 'is inspector Rebus here?'
Mason: Going back to Rebus for a second. I guess the thing that strikes me about him, he can be a very dark and lonely person, which I don't see coming from you.
Rankin: There's a lot of my personality in him. But he's allowed to be much darker than I'm allowed to be. You know, I mean, if I tried to be as dark as him, people would slap me around the face and say 'Cheer up, Ian. Come on, look on the bright side of life.'
Rankin:(reading) When he went home, he took the night home with him, and had to soak and scrub it away, feeling like an old paving slab walked on daily. Sometimes it was easier to stay on the street, or sleep at the station. Sometimes he drove all night, not just through Edinburgh: down to Leith and past the working girls and hustlers, along the waterfront, South Queensferry sometimes, and then up on to the Forth Bridge, up the M90 through Fife, past Perth all the way to Dundee, where he'd turn and head back.
Rankin is writing his ninth Rebus now, his 16th novel. Half way through he still wasn't sure whodunnit:
Rankin: Drives my publishers crazy, you know. My agent as well will say 'What's your new book about? Can you just give us an idea?
The boy from Cardenden still loves making up stories - shining a light in Edinburgh's dark places - seeking respect for the crimewriter's craft:
Rankin: People always said that to me. They said 'you might never get the literary kudos, but you'll always get the cash.' (laughs) I said 'yeah, I want both.' I want people to accept that the crime fiction genre is serious fiction. That's when my job is finished. You know.
By Correspondent Anthony Mason
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