John Rebus’s Edinburgh

I’ve learned much in the first two years of the UHI Creative Writing degree.  As you’d expect, creativity has been emphasised in bringing innovation and ideas out.  Suggestions of starting journals or joining writing groups that use prompts to write about everything and anything – excuse the podcast title coincidence.  It’s all good, but ideas, whether novel or not, haven’t been my problem.  Nor has the motivation to write been an issue; far from it; I think I could write seven days a week.  It’s cathartic and exhilarating.  The question is whether what I produce is original and compels the reader to turn the page.  Are my stories gripping, and are my characters people the readers care about?

Only time will tell, but the secret to my potential success is not dependent on the remaining two years of the course.  I’m not being disrespectful; far from it. The lecturers are interesting and motivating. Still, they can’t help me create and can only offer structures and lampposts shining a light in the direction of travel that I need to follow. I’ve gained confidence and have produced good academic essays, but that’s not enough.

Reading is the secret for me.  I’ve never read so much, at least three books a week. I have fallen in love with Crime Thrillers, particularly ‘Tartan Noir.’  My inspiration came from an academic essay early in the course, where I had to pick an author and conduct an imaginary interview with them.  I chose the late genius William McIlvanney an oft-forgotten Scottish writer credited with creating the ‘Tartan Noir.’  There were many articles, theses, and journals to research.  However, there were several videos on YouTube where he discussed the renaissance in his crime writing.  He was engaging, charming, and handsome in old age.  I was entranced with his socialist politics and, latterly, his acknowledgment of Scottish self-determination.  I devoured all his novels, short stories, and poetry.

McIlvanney wrote about the working class; the dialogue was in Scots and so honest that it made me recognise my childhood experiences in the late sixties and seventies in the mining communities of East Lothian.  However, what he kindled within me, or perhaps rekindled, was my interest in crime novels that had red herrings, clues, and lies on every page, designed to confuse the reader but that created characters. These ordinary heroes with flaws and charms made me want to turn the page.  Of course, my reading expanded to Val McDermid, Lin Anderson, Christopher Brookmyre, and Peter May, to name but just a few.  Then, recently, I enjoyed reading William’s son Liam McIlvanney latest novel, The Heretic.  They were all excellent, but with the added excitement, I knew of the town, street, and sometimes the buildings where the plots unfolded.  It was Scottish and proud and international with equal vigour.  Nonetheless, I hadn’t read Ian Rankin yet, so I read the first in the Rebus series, Knots & Crosses, less than a month ago.  I’ve finished his tenth Rebus, Dead Souls, today.

How do I write a review of ten books in the series that I’ve read that adequately conveys the craft of each book?  I could write a doctoral thesis on his work.  Suffice it to say that Rankin’s genius of storytelling shines in each novel.  They stand alone, original, but as a collective to the development of DCI John Rebus and Edinburgh. I will, however, only comment on several themes in Rankin’s writing. 

Firstly, John Rebus is a believable and flawed man, easily recognisable.  He drinks too much, can’t do relationships or commitments, and is wedded to his job.  Deep down, he’s good, an ordinary crime fighter, slightly overweight, struggling to quit the fags.  Rankin weaves the story around the thoughts and machinations of Rebus, laugh-out-funny one-liners, with the literary tradition of offering comical names like Holmes and Watson as characters.  The dialogue is real, brief, and lengthy when required, and it shows and doesn’t tell the readers.  The stories move at a cracking pace and have the readers guessing all the time for connections and solutions, which is precisely what I love in a crime novel.

Secondly, the novel is a police procedural but not.  There’s always enough technical detail for reality without passages turning into medical gore.  Similarly, the tales are built on his relationships with fellow officers and bosses, not all of whom like or appreciate his mind.  Rebus is not a team player, and Rankin has the uncanny knack of allowing the reader to feel foreboding and irritated at his main character while rooting for him at every turn.

Thirdly, Rankin paints a picture of Scotland, Fife, and Edinburgh that is caught in time and changes from the late eighties to the present.  Mobiles or the internet weren’t around in the first novels, but slowly technological changes are eased into the narrative seamlessly without altering the qualities of the story or the characters.  This is achieved through the broad canvass of ‘Auld Reekie.’  I know the streets and can picture a specific house or the sea lion enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo.  Rankin provides authenticity, as he makes the city of Edinburgh live on the page, as much a character as a person.  I’ve walked through the Meadows, know the student flats in Marchmont, and resided in Wester Hailes for two years when I was ten. Understanding the environment adds to my enjoyment, like McDermid’s Fife, May’s Western Isles, or the father and son McIlvanney’s Glasgow. Of course, knowledge of the surroundings is not essential. I don’t need an intimate understanding of Los Angeles to enjoy a Raymond Chandler novel.

Finally, and this is a technical point for student creative writers, study how Rankin moves you in and out of the point of view.  It’s not one-dimensional; several characters are afforded space in their mind.  It’s used brilliantly to move the story forward, ponder, and conjecture on events.  This has been the most important lesson I’ve gathered from Rankin’s writing. The other is the lack of cliches, specifically similes that describe with creative clarity the picture or the event.  There’s no ‘red rag to a bull’ or ‘raining cats and dogs’. In addition, his descriptions of characters, rooms, or an area of the city are detailed but concise and help create images in the readers’ minds.  It seems effortless, but it’s not.  Rankin’s written word is crafted, brilliant, unique, and memorable.               

And to think – I’ve another fourteen Rebus books to go – and I can’t wait

#ianrankin #valmcdermid #linanderson #liamcIlvanney