In 1987, a Scottish graduate student named Ian Rankin created the grouchy Edinburgh police detective John Rebus. The chain-smoking, hard-drinking Rebus exposed the underbelly of Edinburgh society, a world of addicts, gangsters and conmen, with the detective often following corruption up to the highest government levels. From his novels “Knots and Crosses” to “The Naming of the Dead,” Rankin helped elevate the Rebus series into the pantheon of the literary detective mysteries.
In Rankin’s 17th Rebus novel “Exit Music”(Little, Brown, $25) the tough and bitter detective inspector is 10 days away from his mandatory retirement at 60. Rebus must solve the grisly murder of a a prominent Russian dissident poet while a delegation of Russian oligarchs are in Edinburgh. At the same time, his nemesis, the brutal ganglord Cafferty, is given a savage beating. Rebus tangles with his own police brass in an attempt to solve a gritty, convoluted murder where everything is not that it seems.
Rankin, 48, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Edinburgh.
Q. How did you wind up retiring Rebus in his 17th mystery?
A. A few years ago, an Edinburgh detective I know said to me, “Hey, this guy Rebus was 40 in 1987, right?8 0 I said yeah. “In 2007,” he said, “he’s going to be 60. If he’s a cop in Scotland, he’s going to have to retire.”
When I wrote the first book, I never planned to write a series. Rebus was actually supposed to die in the first novel. I was trying to write an updated version of “Jekyll and Hyde” with a cop instead of a doctor. Quite early in the series, I decided the books would take place over a real space of time and would reflect the changes in the world around me.
The reason I wrote the first book was in part because there was an Edinburgh that no one was thinking about. People thought that Edinburgh was a very quiet, genteel city where nothing happened. Away from the tourist spots, there were areas of great deprivation and the problems of drugs, drug violence and prostitution. I wanted to write about contemporary society and its problems.
Q. You’ve said that Rebus came out of your head fully formed in 1987. How has he changed in the last 20 years?
A. Rebus has changed dramatically over time. Slowly over the course of the series, I’ve given him my taste in music. In 1987, he liked classical music and jazz, but I realized it was easier for me to write about rock and roll. Rebus has been changed by every case has undertaken. He evolved with each book, becoming more cynical, and his health and personal life continued to deteriorate. The only thing that saves him is hi s job. That has been his whole life and that makes me worry about him now that he is retired.
Q. Rebus’ cat-and-mouse game with the master criminal Cafferty went on for more than two decades. How did Cafferty develop as a character?
A. In my third book, Cafferty appeared for only six lines as a criminal Rebus was giving evidence against. It was a couple of books later that I realized that Cafferty was a very good way of capturing all of society’s bad stuff in one character. He became Rebus’ Moriarty. Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Rebus and Cafferty are very similar. They have the same background, they are the same age and they both feel like dinosaurs, the last of a dying breed. You can never tell if they are going to become bosom buddies or if they are going to destroy each other. For both men, the lives they have chosen for themselves are lives without family and friends. Rebus rejects the nice women I’ve given him to play with. He’s just not very good at relationships.
Q. Detective Inspector Rebus pulled you out of graduate school and turned you into a bestselling author. Is it a shock that the crotchety old Rebus has retired?
A. I haven’t thought much about it until people ask me. I have a lot of other projects going on. If I want to bring Rebus back, there are realistic ways to do it. Retired cops often come back to handle cases on the Cold Case Review Team. Detective Sergeant Siobahn Clarke, his sidekick, could take over the series, with Rebus being there to help or to hinder the future cases.