As Ian Rankin prepares for the 30th anniversary next year of the publication of the first John Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, it was fascinating to hear how close we might have come to never hearing of either of them.
Speaking in Madrid to launch both Rebus #20, Perros Salvajes, and Getafe Negro, a crime fiction festival starting October 13, Rankin explains how he almost avoided one of the most successful crime fiction careers of the modern age.
'I was lucky that crime fiction found me as it's the only thing I seem to be good at,' he said. 'I was writing comics and wanted to be in a band, but I was terrible at drawing and couldn't sing or play an instrument. My first novel was a comedy that nobody wanted to read. Then there was The Flood, not a crime novel, that sold about 600 copies. And then Inspector Rebus arrived, and I was a crime novelist. I was a bit embarrassed. I was doing a PhD in the Scottish novel and I thought I would be a professor of literature and therefore to become a crime writer was embarrassing.'
Knots and Crosses sold about the same number of copies first time around as The Flood, and was nearly the beginning and the end of the Fife-born detective. who was shot and killed in the first draft. 'I thought better of it.'
Millions are grateful he did. What Rankin discovered was that he liked a genre he discovered he was writing only when the Crime Writers Association asked if he wanted to become a member.
"I liked the narrative, the sense of place and I liked the detectives. I think writers are detectives also. We are trying to create order from chaos, and that's what detectives do," he said.
He also believes that crime fiction helps us to understand ourselves and our condition, and that helps to explain its widespread success. "The complex question is why do we keep doing terrible things? Why? Throughout history we have always done terrible things, mainly to each other. People are fascinated by that. Beyond that crime fiction holds up a mirror to society: Here's the mess we're in. How did we get here? How do we escape? We (crime fiction writers) don't have the answers, but we ask the questions of people."
Rankin believes that one reason why fictional detectives are such popular and successful pursuers of these questions is access. "Detectives get access everywhere, from the top and the politicians right to the bottom. The character allows you to explore top to bottom. Rebus has allowed me to explore Edinburgh, and Scotland and by extension the world."
Rebus: fractious, rebellious, troubled, troubling and dogged. Despite his recent retirement, he's the very epitome of the modern fictional detective, carrying society's burden as his own and allowing the demands of his job to consume his being. His is a sad life in many ways. He is alone, leads a spectacularly unhealthy lifestyle and has little but his work to occupy.
As a debutant crime novelist, Rankin 'with no literary detective in my head' having read none beforehand, nonetheless had preconceptions for his man. The inspiration for Rebus, inevitably, came from the Oxford Bar, the New Town watering hole that has provided a second home to Rebus where he encountered cops, 'who go to the pub to discuss the job with others as they could not talk about it with anyone else'. Rankin saw the home and social lives of these detectives suffering for the job they loved: thus Rebus. "He's a loner, obsessed but of a bit of an anarchist who does not follow the rules and does not like the bureaucracy of the police force." Also a man with a distinct moral code, a man who might go easy on someone stealing food to feed their family, but will pursue the rich and powerful taking advantage of their position or of others to the ends of the earth.
Ironically, of course, having operated with a literary template for his detective, Rankin created one that has served the crime fiction industry well in the last 30 years.
That 30 year anniversary offers a moment for reflection, not least because Rankin shares it with Peter Robinson and his Yorkshire-based detective DCI Banks, and the immensely popular Val McDermid. Rankin names Michael Connelly, the Florida-based writer of the Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, as another contemporary, and seems slightly surprised by the thought that these great crime writers are no longer the challengers they were in the late 1980s.
"We all started at about the same time and we've known each other for 30 years now. And we used to think we were the young guns, but now we're the establishment. We are the people we used to fight against!"he said.
Establishment perhaps, but there's plenty of literary life left in Rankin and even the retired Rebus. Rankin introduced the anti-Rebus in teh Despite the latter's retirement from the force, he was co-opted back in by Police Scotland to help investigate the case in 'Perros Salvajes' (Even Dogs in the Wild), and another outing is also imminent with Rebus investigating a cold case in the forthcoming Rather Be the Devil.
Rankin has already produced one of the most influential bodies of work in British crime fiction history. Long may he continue to add to it.