Author Ian Rankin On The Rolling Stones, Graphic Novels & Houston

Categories: Get Lit
At the time of this writing, Scottish novelist Ian Rankin has the #1 bestselling book in the UK with Doors Open. The title is ironic since his previous novel – the just published-in-the-U.S. Exit Music – actually closes the portal on the fictional career of his best-known creation, Edinburgh-based Detective Inspector John Rebus.

A hard-drinking, rule-bucking cop who would have a hard time deciding whether to save his quart of whiskey or CD of Exile on Main Street from a house fire if he could only pick one, Rebus made his first appearance in 1987’s Knots and Crosses He has since fought crime in novels, novellas, and short stories which take place in areas usually not on the Chamber of Commerce’s complimentary tourist maps.

Rankin has chosen to age his hero in more or less real time, so Rebus is now pushing 60 – mandatory retirement age for a Scottish policemen. But it’s not surprising to those who’ve followed the series that in Exit Music, Rebus spends his last week desperately trying to solve a case involving a Russian businessman, young junkies, a dead exile poet, and a sound engineer before he turns in his warrant card.

Rankin spoke with Hair Balls about the (maybe) end of Rebus’ career arc, his creative tax deductions, and why all he really wants to do in Houston is go to an Astros game.

So what was it like for you when you wrote that last word on the last page and sat back?

Well, I don’t remember it to be honest. I probably just heaved a sigh and went to the pub. There were so many other projects to get done that I’d promised people, I really haven’t gotten to the grieving process yet. But maybe there isn’t one. There’s some unfinished business in the back of my mind that he might be coming back.

Well in the book, he does seem to have a lot of interest in tidying up some cold cases…

People don’t believe this when I tell them, but I don’t know if he’s coming back or not. It will be two more years before I’ll have an empty schedule, an empty brain, and an empty sheet of paper, and then I’ll decide if I have anything new to say about this character.

There are some scenes in the book which take place in the new Scottish Parliament building, and Rebus is very cynical about the grandeur of it.

Well, in real life it went way over budget, and a lot of people think it would just add another layer of bureaucracy to life. On the other hand, it is a precursor to full scale independence for the country, with the Nationalist Party taking power last May for the first time in their existence. That’s become a very real possibility, independence from England. And they are striving to be as good a government as can be to show the doubters that they can rule. Times are very uncertain.

So Sean Connery, who has long said he won’t move back to Scotland until it is independent, shouldn’t be calling up the movers yet.

No [laughing], but he’s in line to be the first President!

Hey, if Schwarzenegger was born in the U.S., he’d be running for President.

Well, I’m sure the Republican Party is looking at ways to change the goal posts.

If you took the Rebus from the first book and plunked him next to the Rebus in the last one, other than physical aging, what would be the most significant evolvement?

I didn’t really know Rebus in that first book. I was very young when I wrote it. Now I know the inside of his head, and I think he’s been made very cynical by the job. So the more cases he’s solved, the more world-weary he’s become. But he’s in better shape now. In those early books, he got pretty severe beatings quite a lot. And he’s not drinking as much as he was.

What about his taste in music? You write a lot about that.

In that first book, I thought loner existential cops had to listen to jazz and classical music. In about book three or four, he starts to listen to the same music I do.

You are actually able to deduct all your CD purchases and concert tickets on your taxes. How the hell did you manage that?

If you’re a self-employed writer in the UK, you can claim a lot of things. I just made the case because there was so much music in my books. So if Rebus buys an album, and I just happen to have the same one, well, that’s a research tool to me! The villain who runs Edinburgh in the books basically lives in my house, so the hot tub he’s sitting in is my hot tub at my real house. But so far, I haven’t gotten the tax people to budge on that one.

Rebus loves his Rolling Stones, as do you. But who is Scotland’s greatest musical export?

Wow. Well, a lot of them have chosen to stay here and aren’t really know outside the country. But I suppose you’d have to say people like Annie Lennox, and Ian Stewart who played keyboards for the Rolling Stones, but was behind the scenes. And then Jack Bruce from Cream. He’s from Glasgow.

You’re doing a lengthy Hellblazer John Constantine graphic novel for DC Comics. Did you have to learn from scratch how to write for that medium?

Oh yeah! It wasn’t easy. It’s a very different mindset. In [novels] you write “Rebus walked into a bar,” and a lot is up to the reader what the bar looks like, how noisy it is, and all that. In this, I have to describe it for the artist who has to do something like 2,000 drawings for the whole thing.

You’ve been to Houston several times before on tours, but usually just for a day in and out. What would you like to do in the city that maybe you haven’t had time to do before?

Well, I’ve never been to an American football game before. But I’ve always wanted to see a baseball game specifically. That would be something!

Finally, a few years ago, you ended up in Huntsville filming for a British documentary on capital punishment. How was that viewed in your country?

I didn’t just go to death row and interview a guy who killed somebody. I also interviewed the daughter of his victim. It was a fairly balanced look at the process, the ripple effect that a crime has. The inmate thought he’d changed for the better, he’d learned to read and write and play chess, and he doesn’t want to die. But then you come out of the jail and you look back at his arrest sheet and all he’s done, and it’s hard to have sympathy for a guy who shoots someone in the back of the head.

Ian Rankin speaks and signs Exit Music on October 8, 6:30 p.m., at Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet. For info call 524-8597 or visit www.murderbooks.com

-- Bob Ruggiero

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