Thursday, 25 July 2013

Dead Man Talking #19 - Ian Rankin

Strachan McQuade (deceased) Interviews Ian Rankin

Last week at the Harrogate Crime Festival I discovered a hangover cure far more potent than raw eggs, Irn Bru, or even square sausages dipped in twenty year old malt whisky. So next time you’re suffering horribly like I was, simply find yourself a table beside a couple of living legends of the Scottish writing scene. Worked wonders for me. The two writers in question were William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin. After aggressively badgering both men to pose for photographs plugging a new anthology of short stories, ‘Noir Carnival’  (you owe me big time, Kate Laity), I took a deep breath (forgot to exhale and almost blacked out…) then enquired if either fancied talking to Strachan McQuade. I’m sure William McIlvanney gracefully nodded his agreement, but in all the excitement I sort of forgot to get his contact details. Doh. But all is not lost. Ian Rankin furrowed his eyebrows and threw me a dubious look, but he did at least promise to look at the questions. And blimey! He’s only gone and done it. So…

There’s not much I can say about Ian Rankin that’s not been said before in a far more eloquent fashion. But for the benefit of any Neolithic Picts recently dug from a peat-bog and revived using a car battery, jump leads and balsamic vinegar – Ian Rankin might possibly be the fifth most famous Scot ever, just slightly behind Robert Burns, William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and Shrek. The author of a zillion successful novels including those featuring everyone’s favourite cop ‘Rebus’, Rankin continues to lead from the front with his own unique brand of Tartan Noir that fuses crime, contemporary music, Indian Pale Ale, and the psycho-geography of Edinburgh’s rank-rotten underbelly. 

Many thanks to Caitlin Sagan for the Harrogate photograph.

Strachan McQuade R.I.P.

Ian Rankin


McQuade: This episode of Dead Man Talking comes to you from a Little Chef cafeteria somewhere on the A9 between Pitlochry and Inverness. We chose this location, not only as a barely perceptible nod of the head to the most recent Rebus novel, but also because Little Chef offers a 50% Presbyterian Minister's Discount every second Tuesday. So while I tuck into fish, chips and mushy Peas (Rankin brought his own sandwiches and thermos flask of tea if youre interested) I'll set the ball rolling with my first question.

Some of your book titles have strong musical connections. For example, there's 'Let it Bleed' (The Rolling Stones), The Falls (The Mutton Birds) and Black and Blue (ahem...... The Backstreet Boys) As a man of a different generation I'd have been more drawn to your work if you had pilfered song titles such as Kenneth MacKellar's Eurovision entry 'A Man Without Love' or indeed, Andy Stewart's 'Donald Where's Your Troosers'. My question is this - when stuck for a new book title, do you simply flick through your gramophone collection for inspiration or visit a High Street retail outlet like Woolworths, whom I imagine have a broader selection of current chart toppers?

Rankin: Ah, dear-departed Woolies - I used to buy records there back in the day. Those ghosted Top of the Pops collections were so reasonably priced. And dreadful, too, of course. I use music in my books because I am a frustrated rock star. My first band, The Amoebas, existed only on paper and inside my head. (I was 12.) Aged 18 I joined Fife's second-best punk group, The Dancing Pigs. We lasted 10 months or so. As a result, my musical career has to live on vicariously through book titles and Rebus's late-night vinyl orgies.

McQuade: By Jove! Dont talk to me about those sinfully depraved images on Top of the Pops long playing records. I still maintain those provocative covers, adorned with bikini-clad young women holding beach-balls aloft, encouraged promiscuity, lewd behaviour and dancing, and no doubt was the likely cause of so many disco-themed dogging sites springing up in my parish! Sorry, did I spit a bit of fish in your eye just now? How rude of me.

Now, Rebus is regarded by most of your readers as the quintessential, die-cast maverick cop. Did you deliberately create squeaky-clean, whistle-blowing, tell-tale-tit, Malcolm Fox as the perfect illustration of the anti-maverick police clipe? And if so - was this polarisation a moralistic ploy to demonstrate that decent, upstanding police officers can top the book charts without incurring moribund stagnation with regard to their promotional prospects? And is that salmon paste on your sandwich? I'd be happy to do a part-exchange swap for these mushy peas if you like.

Rankin: Princes Salmon Spread - paste royalty, my friend. Keep your peas! But to answer your question, I got talking to an Internal Affairs cop and realised the fictional version would be the antithesis of Rebus - playing by the rules, working well in a team, etc. Nobody would read Fox and think of him as Rebus Lite. The challenge was: can I make such a character interesting and appealing? Having spent 2 books on this project, I then decided to show readers what it's like to be a tainted cop on the receiving end of Fox's attentions. Hence the return of Rebus in Standing In Another Man's Grave.

Shocked Otter
McQuade: I once tripped and fell head-first into another mans grave at a funeral, but thats a story for another time. Lets just say, sherry was involved. Sorry, where was I? Ah, yes, back when I was a young minister, I spent an uncomfortable night banged up in the police cells due to trumped up charges of exposing myself to an otter. It was an utterly ridiculous allegation as I had no idea the otter was even watching at that precise moment. Have you ever spent a night in the 'Clink' for research purposes? Or any other reason, come to that?

Rankin: Never a whole night. I've visited cop-shops, of course. And prisons. And even Death Row in Huntsville, Texas. I've sat in cells and interview rooms and comms centres. But I don't want to get too cosy with the police. I don't want my books to become PR exercises for the constabulary. Having said which, I've usually found the polis to be helpful. It wasn't always thus. When I walked into a cop shop in 1985 to research my first Rebus book, the detectives saw a scruffy character spouting a dubious story about writing a novel. As a result, I became a suspect in a case they were working on...

McQuade: If it was possible to stick you in a time machine and have you play a game of dominoes with Sir Walter Scott - who would win? And why? If you're rubbish at dominoes we can always arrange a cribbage match instead.

Domino Champ 1890
Rankin: Years since I've played cribbage. Used to be handy at three-card-brag when we played for our wage-packets in the chicken factory of a Friday afternoon. Dominoes... My dad was a demon. He could count which doms were still to be played. Beat me fairly consistently. On the other hand, could Sir Walter play at all? Maybe I could channel my dad and whip him.

McQuade: Im assured Scotty won the Black Spot Trophy in 1890 held at the Inversnaid Hotel. His opponent was Daniel "Domino" Defoe, so he might not be such an easy touch as you think, Rankin. (Editor- they had time machines back then, too?)

Lastly - back to Rebus and Fox. Rebus is instantly recognisable by his surname (check the Radio Times if you don't believe me) while Malcolm Fox always requires both names when mentioned in casual conversation. A prime example of this phenomenon would be, 'Fancy Malcolm Fox turning up in the last Rebus novel.' So, will you feel Malcolm Fox has only been fully embraced by your readership when he simply gets referred to as Fox? Hmmmm - just noticed I already did just that at the start of the question. Sort of tripped myself up here. But I'm sure you know where I'm going with this. By the way, I'm finished with these chips if you want to help yourself. Sorry about the flecks of denture-paste on those two at the edge of the plate. Just rub them with a napkin and they'll be good as new.

Rankin: Not too many Rebuses in the world but plenty of Foxes. Maybe I add Malcolm so as to avoid confusion. Also maybe because he is a slightly softer character - you can imagine calling him Malcolm to his face while you'd have to have known Rebus for decades before feeling comfortable with 'John'. Right, I've finished my tea and sarnies. Time to get back on the dreaded A9. I'd give you a lift, but I've got death metal on the car stereo. Probably not your thing. Cheery-bye.

McQuade: Wait, hold on…

Sound of door slamming closed and strains of death metal as car revs up

McQuade: By Jove, I only wanted to tell Rankin he’s left his thermos flask behind. Ah, probably not important. Not as if he needs it to stop his car from hitting a tree or anything…

Sound of screeching brakes and car hitting tree.

McQuade: Then again...


  1. I do, I do! You and Caitlin both! :-)

  2. Well done McQuade. Wonderful mix of humor and information.

  3. Great interview, Strachie! Brave man, Ian. Good work.