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Rankin rues Rebus rations
7:00am Saturday 15th December 2012 in Books
As his maverick Edinburgh cop John Rebus returns after a five-year absence, author Ian Rankin tells why he's frustrated by the TV adaptations of his books - and never watches them.
By Hannah Stephenson
No sooner does a new Ian Rankin book hit the shelves than it soars to the top of the bestseller lists, knocking the new adult fiction from JK Rowling, Maeve Binchy and other big hitters off their number one perches.
It's estimated that Rankin's thrillers account for 10% of crime fiction sales in the UK. While huge noises have been made about Scandinavian crime writers including Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo, Rankin needs no massive publicity machine or hype to get his thrillers noticed. After all, he's been around a long time: his most famous cop, Rebus, was created 25 years ago.
Rankin, 52, remains grounded despite his enormous success, even though he's made a reported £25 million, tours extensively and appears regularly on TV, notably as a reviewer on BBC Two's Newsnight Review.
He has famously never watched the TV adaptations of his Rebus books, which starred John Hannah and subsequently Ken Stott.
"I've never watched Rebus because I don't want actors' voices and faces to start interfering with the voices that are already in my head," he explains.
But he admits he's envious of the TV time given to certain other crime novels. "I'm very jealous that when something Scandinavian comes on TV, it gets given 10 or 20 hours, whereas the Rebus novels got 45 minutes per book, which was frustrating for me. There was very little space for character development."
However, he has watched a new TV adaptation of Doors Open, his standalone novel about an art heist, starring Stephen Fry, which is due to be screened on ITV1 over Christmas.
"It was terrific. It's the best adaptation of any of my books. The screenwriter was a friend of mine, who kept it true to the book," he says.
Rankin lives in Edinburgh, two doors away from fellow author Alexander McCall Smith and across town from his pal and former neighbour JK Rowling.
He likes to remain pretty anonymous about town. You wouldn't notice him contemplating his pint in one of the city's pubs frequented by his fictional investigator Rebus, who also likes to indulge in a beer or three.
Writing in real time, five years ago Rankin was forced to retire Rebus at 60, until a policeman friend told him the retirement age had changed to 65, paving the way for Rebus to return.
In his 18th Rebus novel, Standing In Another Man's Grave, the retired cop returns as a civilian working in a cold case unit and puts his colleagues' backs up when he befriends a woman whose daughter has been missing for 10 years after disappearing off the A9, and who has made a connection with the recent disappearance of a 15-year-old girl off the same stretch of road.
Rebus pursues the case, which fuels the anger of both old and new adversaries, including the teetotal and serious internal affairs investigator Malcolm Fox, the hero of Rankin's two most recent police novels, The Complaints and The Impossible Dead.
Fox may have been the hero of those two books, but through Rebus's eyes he's far from it and the scenes in which they appear together are a delight - the hard-bitten old-timer versus the whiter-than-white younger officer.
Rankin writes one book a year, working in the study of his substantial house in Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife, Miranda Harvey. The money he has made hasn't gone to his head. He drives a Volvo, buys a lot of records, books and beer - all things he spent money on as a student.
Balancing family life with his career is tough, he admits. His oldest son, Jack, is studying classics at Newcastle, while his 18-year-old son Kit is severely disabled and suffers from Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that left him blind and unable to walk or talk. He attends a special school and also has a carer who lives at the family home.
Rankin reflects that Kit helped make his writing stronger, as he poured all his distress and anger about his son's condition into his novels.
"While he was being diagnosed I was writing a book called Black And Blue, which was a much bigger, angrier book than previously.
"We were going to the hospital and having meetings with specialists, then I would go home and I'd go to my study and I would suddenly get to play God. I could create this alternate universe that would be exactly the way I wanted it to be.
"It was quite therapeutic at a time when in our real lives we didn't have much control over what was going on. I channelled a lot of the questions that I had about the world, and the anger and frustration about Kit's condition, into that book. It ended up winning the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for the best crime novel of the year, and it sold four times as many copies as my previous books."
Before Kit was born, Rankin had had limited success as a novelist and wasn't making much money. His publishers were worried he would never make the bestseller list.
"I was having panic attacks. I would jump into the car in the middle of the night and go for a drive, yell and scream, and that got worse when Kit came along."
Despite being severely disabled, Kit is very happy, says Rankin. Angelman syndrome used to be called 'Happy Puppet' syndrome because those with it are happy for a lot of the time.
"He's not autistic or withdrawn. He's 18 but his level of perception is that of an infant. He can't walk or talk and he can't do sign language, but we take him horse riding and even skiing with various charities and he loves it. He's almost better known in Edinburgh than I am," says Rankin.
Born in the small mining town of Cardenden, Fife, Rankin wrote and drew his own comic books before going on to Edinburgh University to study English literature. He started to write fiction after graduating in 1982 and his first Inspector Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses, was published in 1987.
These days he sets himself a punishing schedule, even though he doesn't need to work, speaking at a range of book events and festivals, supporting charities and campaigning to encourage young readers in between writing novels.
He's currently on a tour of New Zealand and Australia and will be starting a new book in January, but has no idea if it will be about Fox or Rebus.
"I don't know what story's going to pop into my head. It doesn't get any easier. You're always up against yourself. You have to work that little bit harder all the time."
:: Standing In Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin is published by Orion, priced £18.99. Available now