I am one of that inglorious band who once harboured hopes of joining the ranks of successful crime fiction writers but who now makes do with a lingering addiction to reading crime fiction and composing the occasional review of the outpouring of those who did more than hope. In the position fate has decreed me there is a regular activity in which I deconstruct crime fiction and try to figure out what makes one author successful while others fall by the wayside.
In that light let’s consider the case of Ian Rankin, by a fair mile Scotland’s (and there is a strong case for saying Britain’s) most successful crime writer over the last 25 years. It wasn’t always the case. In 1994 when the infant crime fiction magazine A Shot in the Dark first became acquainted with Ian Rankin, he was still among those numbered as promising. Thankfully for us, and for him, the monumental Black and Blue changed all that and, as the old adage goes, he has not looked back since. So what makes Ian Rankin a cast iron success while others are doomed as failures?
A large part of the answer is simply John Rebus – one of the most rounded figures in crime fiction – a commodity like haggis into which all sorts of elements good and bad, healthy and otherwise, have been thrown in just to see what emerges at the other end. Or maybe you could upgrade the product and see it not just in terms of humble Scottish fare but more in terms of that more exotic export say a cask edition vintage Mortlach.
Nothing less really does justice to Rankin’s hero. For many of the years that Rebus books have lined out shelves he’s enjoyed a notable sidekick in the shape of Siobhan Clarke. And for most of those years there has always been the spectre of Big Ger Cafferty lingering in the background, proclaiming a love-hate relationship with Rebus.
In recent years that inspired grouping has been joined by Malcolm Fox, once of the Police Complaints Division in Edinburgh Police and as such not one of Rebus’ inner sanctum in the Oxford Bar. Fox struggled in a couple of attempts to launch him as a literary figure in his own right. But now free of the Complaints and back to normal policing alongside Detective Inspector Clarke, Fox has declared an uneasy truce with Rebus, leaving Siobahn to play the reluctant referee in the event of further hostilities.
Rebus, now retired from Police Scotland is recruited as a Police Consultant to throw some light on two murders and one attempted murder, especially as the intended victim of the latter was Big Ger. With such a strong cast how can Even Dogs in the Wild not be added to the list of Rankin bestsellers?
Another element of the answer relates to the words on the page. On that score Ian Rankin could probably write a great book if you confined him to a black room for two years and just let him out on the occasional Saturday to watch Raith Rovers. Certainly a year’s sabbatical has done nothing to blunt that talent.
The tangled web between the main characters unlocks on the pages in a wealth of scintillating dialogue. Plot and sub plots multiply fluently, invariably with deeper roots in that other tangled web which is recent Scottish political history, the neaps alongside the haggis and the single malt. This particular strand of the tangled web relates to an old case of abuse in a children’s home involving several notables among Scotland’s legal and political aristocracy which, for obvious reasons, has remained suppressed until it comes to Rebus’ attention. Another sideshow reflects Big Ger’s role as the king of Edinburgh’s underworld, a claim being undermined by the changing nature of organised crime as much as the ambitions of the pretenders to his throne.
As in all the best books Even Dogs in the Wild is so much more than the sum total of its parts. And what is so new about that? As far as I am concerned that has been a justified verdict on every outing of Rebus over the last 25 years. Is it unrealistic to hope that verdict will continue to apply for another 25 years? Why not ….? There is still a lot of life in the old bugger yet, especially now he has been adopted by Brillo, a stray terrier who found him wandering the streets of Edinburgh at nights. And anyone with the slightest modicum of romance will want to know whether the emerging relationship between Siobahn and Fox will progress to regular visits to Easter Road?
So here’s to the next 25 years Ian, “lang mae yer lum reek!”