Ian Rankin, the Scottish crime writer who has sold some 30 million books across the world, is talking about his more… dedicated fans.
‘They’re all lovely,’ he says. ‘They send me CDs of bands they think I should be listening to, and books I might like. Although there was one… she got my autograph on a book and a few years later I met her again. She’d had the autograph tattooed on the back of her neck.’
He laughs. ‘That was a bit odd.’
Odd, perhaps, but it’s maybe also an indication of the esteem in which he’s held by lovers of crime fiction.
Rankin’s 39 books have been translated into 36 languages, earned him an OBE and seen him amass a personal fortune estimated at Dh130 million. His most popular character – the hard-bitten, maverick detective John Rebus – is so beloved that fans flock to the character’s (and Rankin’s) home city of Edinburgh to see the streets and sites where the novels play out. There’s a walking tour of places mentioned in the 20-strong series.
But perhaps more pertinently than any of the above right now, the 55-year-old is expected to be one of the biggest draws at the Emirates Airline Festival Of Literature being held right here in Dubai from March 1-12.
Over two days, he will give three talks on the nature of crime writing and perform readings from his latest book, Even Dogs In The Wild.
‘We’re delighted to have him,’ says Isobel Abulhoul, director of the annual extravaganza. ‘In terms of sales and critical opinion, he’s pretty much among the best crime writers on the planet.’
Rankin is at home in Edinburgh when we talk, but he’s already excited about arriving in Dubai.
‘I really like the place,’ he says. ‘Last time I was there I went to the Dubai Museum and it’s amazing, the story of the city, how it’s developed since the Sixties. It’s extraordinary progress.
‘And the festival is a real jewel. I go to a lot of these things around the world, and often you go for one day and then you’re off again, like on tour, you spend half a day in a strange city so you get no impression of the place whatsoever. But with Dubai, they fly you out there for the full week to do two or three events, and then you can get out and explore the city so you do get a sense of the culture and place.
‘But the other great thing is you also get to hang out with the other writers. There might be 20 or 30 great authors all staying at the InterContinental hotel [in Festival City, where the event is headquartered] for the best part of a week, so you get to know each other pretty well. The last time I was there I met Kate Mosse and Jeffrey Archer. And husbands and wives are invited too, so they can hang out together and have a good moan about what it’s like to be married to a writer.’ Rankin himself was born in Fife in a one-time mining village. He moved to the Scottish capital for university and wrote his earliest novels while studying a PhD in literature there. He was first published at 26 and the debut Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses, came a year later in 1987.
‘I never had any desire to write crime actually,’ he says. ‘Back then no one was writing about contemporary Edinburgh and I couldn’t understand why. It’s such a Jekyll and Hyde city; it’s cultured and historic but it also had the worst heroin problem in western Europe and appalling HIV rates. There was real poverty. And those contrasts should be meat and drink to a writer. Rebus started as a vehicle for that.’
It was only a throwaway remark from Rankin’s publisher about how he liked the detective that made the author think there might be more mileage in Rebus. Twenty-nine years and 20 books later – with a brief translation on to British TV – it would appear said publisher knew his stuff.
‘I don’t know why Rebus is so popular,’ Rankin admits. ‘I talk to fans all around the world and it seems to me he’s a complex character and he’s damaged and, I think, people are drawn to that. But he still lives for it, because he lives for the truth and he lives for justice, for doing good.
‘He’s an outsider, and people are perhaps drawn to that. We like those who bend rules. He works for the police but he has elements of a maverick American PI and that may widen the appeal.
‘And I think some blokes like him because he has that bachelor lifestyle, which maybe a lot of them wish they had. He can smoke and listen to music late at night without his wife coming down and saying, “It’s time for bed”. And I think some women think they could change him: “he needs a good woman and I could be that woman”.’
Not, it should be said, that the character was an immediate hit. For a decade after that first 1987 book, Rebus remained an obscure creation. Rankin and wife Miranda Harvey struggled financially as book after book sold just enough to maintain a publishing deal but not really as much as one needs when raising two young sons, both of who are now in their 20s.
It was only when 1997’s Black And Blue was named novel of the year by the UK Crime Writers’ Association that the series really took off. The rest, as they say, is history.
Right now, Rankin is in the middle of his next novel. It’s Rebus 21.
‘When I’m writing,’ he says, ‘I like to be sitting at home, facing a blank wall with my trusty laptop, which is so old you have to put a shovel full of coal in the back to get it to work. It has no internet access or anything. The only thing I do on it is write books, and I must have written my last 12 or 13 on there. It cost about £300 [Dh1,580]. And recently the screen went dead but rather than buy a new one, I got the screen replaced.’
His day-to-day routine varies. ‘Some days, the words will pour out. Seven or eight hours pass and I’ve written 3-4,000 words. Other days, I’ll just sit there, scratching my head. And if that happens, I’ll have a walk, go out for coffee, read the paper, sit and think. Then maybe try again in the afternoon. Or leave it until after dinner. And then, 8pm or 9pm, the words might be coming and I’ll happily sit down and work until one or two in the morning. Just so I still get a full day’s work done.’
His initial inspiration for plots and stories is similarly unpredictable.
‘Maybe it’s something in the news, or something that someone has told me in the café, just a little thing and it gets the cogs turning in my head,’ he says. ‘It could be a social or economic issue. Reading about the banking crisis and immigration have both sparked ideas in the past.
‘Or, like with the latest book, I was staying in a village in northern Scotland and someone told me about a suspected drug dealer who had died of natural causes but the rumour went round the village that he had buried a stash of money in the local woods; and so every weekend some of the villagers would take their spades and go and have a little dig and see if they could find this treasure. And I just liked the idea of a treasure hunt. And that very slowly developed into the story in the book. What I ended with is unrecognisable from the original tale, but that was the starting point.’
The good news is Rankin’s inspiration, however it comes to him, shows no signs of running dry. He’s always been prolific. He smashed out five books in two years between 1992 and 1993.
But even now he’s recognised as a global great, his desire to produce more work appears undiminished. He loves writing, he says. It gives him a way to voice frustrations and feelings with the world. He’d previously said that if he didn’t write, he’d have spent a fortune on counselling fees.
Perhaps more importantly for fans of Rebus, he remains fond of the character. ‘He’s a lot of fun to spend time with. I’ve still not got to the core of what makes him tick,’ he notes.
This isn’t necessarily always the case. Many great authors have come to resent their most popular creations. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously killed off Sherlock Holmes in a (failed) attempt to stop fans asking him for more stories, while Agatha Christie found Hercule Poirot’s enduring popularity baffling.
Which brings the conversation back to why he’s appearing in Dubai. Because he’s considered a world great, as organiser Isobel noted above. It intrigues me. As the biggest-selling British crime writer alive, where does Rankin feel he stands alongside such historic names as Doyle and Christie?
He laughs. ‘I don’t know, man. That’s not for me to say. That’s for history to decide. Ask me again in 100 years.’