On Thursday evening 21 November, the Leichhardt Town Hall housed a capacity crowd to hear Pam Newton, a former police officer–turned award-winning crime novelist in an interview with Ian Rankin about his latest DI Rebus novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave.
They were both introduced by the newly appointed Leichhardt mayor, Cr Darcy Byrne, who insisted that the Leichhardt Municipality was the best place possible to host two such accomplished crime writers due to the fact that the infamous "Lennie" McPherson, one of the most notorious and powerful Australian career criminals of the late 20th century had been born and raised in the area.
But the crowd wanted to hear about Rebus – and the fact that after five years in retirement - Rebus is back! The character of John Rebus lives in real time and was forty in the first novel (25 years ago), retired 5 years ago and now he has been brought out of retirement to work as a civilian in a cold case unit with the unfortunate acronym SCRU (Serious Crime Review Unit).
Rankin told the audience how he has to be vigilant to fit with the rules of the Edinburgh Police force. And in real life, their retirement age is 60 years. Rankin amused us with the story of a member in the Scottish Parliament who asked the Justice Minister if he’d consider changing the retirement age of police in Edinburgh so that a fictional detective could keep working. Apparently this didn’t endear Rankin to his local force!
Newton mentioned that this latest novel reintroduces some old foes, like Cafferty, Rebus’ nemesis, who turns up to take Rebus for a drink because he reckons he owes him for saving his life. But as readers, we’re never sure if it’s just a friendly drink or whether there is something going on below the surface. As Rankin said, “It’s an interesting relationship because we’re never sure if they’re going to become old friends or if they’re going to kill each other.”
Rankin went on to discuss how another old character, Malcolm Fox, usually a protagonist, this time has to perform in the role of the antagonist, the “bad guy”, trying to bar Rebus from returning to the force. Rankin’s editor told him that she “didn’t like Fox now – she’d gone off him.” So Rankin had to focus on carefully explaining the reasons for his not wanting Rebus back and trying to make Fox less unpleasant. He found it a challenge to see Malcolm Fox, the hero, through the eyes of the detective whom he’s hunting.
Newton added how interesting she found it to see Rebus from the point of view of Fox and Fox from the point of view of Rebus. In a rare moment Fox actually physically describes Rebus, revealing, she thought, an incredible jealousy. She asked Rankin whether he had had fun writing about this shifting power balance.
Rankin responded by adding the potential conflict with Rebus’ sidekick, Siobhan Clarke, who has emerged from his shadow and therefore is also perhaps not so happy to see Rebus return to his former position in the force. There was also the inner conflict of the older characters such as Rebus, who is unfamiliar with the modern social media and feels insecure around the younger officers and Cafferty who has to contend with the new ways of breaking the law. But Rankin’s main concern was how to write Fox in future books as a hero. If the reader now dislikes him, could he get their sympathy back or will Fox always remain “the bad guy”?
Rankin went on to describe how constraining being true to real time can be for an author. He confessed that he could kick himself for making Rebus too old in the first book. He’d recently been told that the cold case unit his character is working in is going to be wound up as the whole Scottish Force is being restructured. He’s also discovered, now that he has Fox in Internal Affairs, that officers only serve in that position for 3-5 years, so he is faced with moving Fox back to the normal CID with people he has prosecuted and who will always hate him.
Other challenges come with writing about real places and events, such as in The Naming of the Dead. This novel was set during the 2005 G8 Summit in Auchterarder, Scotland, allowing for an encounter between President George W. Bush and DI John Rebus. When the London bombings took place during the Summit Rankin was compelled to also include them in his plot. There are humorous incidents which lead from this too, such as when readers visit the St Leonards Police Station or the Oxford Bar expecting to find the fictional Rebus!
Rankin went on to describe how his latest novel received its title: it is a mondegreen - a mishearing of a lyric by the Scottish songwriter and folk musician, Jackie Levin, to whom the novel is dedicated. He was a long time friend of Ian Rankin and they released a joint album entitled Jackie Leven Said. Unfortunately Levin died during the writing of the novel and Rankin has sprinkled many of his lyrics throughout the novel in homage. The true words are, “standing in another man's rain”.
Rankin feels that as a crime writer he can explore everything he wants to in his fiction - complex characters, a strong sense of place, the pleasure of a who-dunnit with the pieces coming together to a neat end, the vicarious thrill of a roller coaster ride for the reader, but also the ability to look quite deeply at society and tackle the big moral questions such as why do we continue to do bad things to each other? What is evil? To this end Rankin investigated the nature of evil and how it is manifested in a three-part documentary series named Ian Rankin’s Evil Thoughts. In the course of his travels, he met philosophers, theologians, historians, neurologists, psychiatrists, criminals and victims, and explored their widely differing notions of evil, and examined how evil is perceived and portrayed today.
Rankin shared his writing style with us, telling us that he makes up the story as he goes along and that he writes as though he were Rebus, as equally in the dark as to the identity of the killer until very close to the end. It is only then, after the first draft is written that he goes back to research and plug the holes so that the whole fits neatly and completely.
We eagerly await being illuminated by Rankin’s next book – despite his assertions of not being sure how it will pan out as he has no ideas for it at all. He only knows it has to be delivered in June 2013.